While growth and change are exciting for a small or medium-sized business, rapid expansion is usually accompanied by potentially problematic challenges, both for the organization's culture and its leaders.
If your small company grows by, say, 120% (the average first-year growth for startups according to Equidam) and your current number of employees more than doubles, doing things the way they've always been done will no longer cut it.
I had a call recently with a prospect whose company is experiencing a multitude of issues due to their fast growth. In this organization, there are a range of managers running different teams with specific purposes, and it has created quite a few silos where teams and departments are not communicating. There is a lack of understanding within teams of the value of breaking down these silos—which is a difficult concept to sell to those who've never known a healthy culture. In cases like these, employees and even leaders begin to think project to project and lose sight of the larger organizational outlook.
The company reorganized in 2017 to try to address these communication issues (which has helped in some areas), but they're still experiencing siloed structures where people are sitting right next to each other and still aren't talking. Their biggest goal for bringing Fierce into the organization is to start to break down some of the psychological walls that have been built.
When new teams or departments form, there's a risk of silos forming that didn't exist prior to the growth. Methods of communication may also need to shift, via:
What worked before may no longer be efficient or effective in an environment where expansion is happening quickly. Conversations between certain people or teams may need to happen now (if they're newly formed), or more often.
Quick expansions can unfortunately create psychological walls that negatively impact culture, and this is not just an issue reserved only for HR. When communication suffers, so does the cultural health of the company, and it affects everyone—this can include lack of clarity around roles, frequent miscommunication, and decision making without collaboration. And when the conversations that need to happen aren't happening, it leads to silos and separation that have a negative impact on culture.
Leaders are Unprepared for Change
As the company grows, leaders will need to develop the conversation skills needed to effectively manage the evolving needs of their teams and the organization. What we see often are internal promotions that are based on tenure, but many of these leaders being promoted don't have the training or the skills to manage other people.
Taking Steps to Successfully Navigate Growth
If you don't have a strategy to accommodate the expansion of your company, it's not a matter of if, but rather when and how it will cause problems for your organization. The more you grow, the more your problems will, too. Bottom line, you need a plan.
Fortunately, the problems many companies face in the midst of rapid growth can be remedied, and your organization doesn't have to go to the dark side. Here are some steps you can take:
1. When you see it, say it.
One way you can assist in this process whether you're a leader or individual contributor is to offer feedback in the moment. If, for example, a current method of communication isn't working, provide an idea for a better method. If something you see is working or you're happy with a recent change, offer praise for reinforcement. Feedback is an opportunity to see what we may not see, and a single conversation may be what saves your organization from chaos during this time of change.
2. Take a regular pulse.
If there's currently no way of taking a company pulse or team diagnostic, that's a problem. It's important to know what people are thinking and feeling, and to find out, you have to seek regular input and feedback. Sending out short surveys on a regular basis will help you determine the health of your culture and overall employee satisfaction.
Pulses will also help prevent "fires" via Glassdoor and the "dumping" of harsh truths during exit interviews, etc. If employees don't feel comfortable expressing themselves in the workplace, they will express themselves elsewhere or during an inopportune time, and it's not always pretty. The question to ask is, how can we have these conversations sooner?
The most honest, transparent cultures where there's a sense of psychological safety and trust address this question by communicating directly to employees, "We want to know what you think!" And, we want to offer avenues where you are able to share your thoughts honestly without fear of retaliation.
Keep in mind that there is some grain of truth in the feedback contained in pulses and surveys—take concerns to heart and put solutions in place as quickly as possible to address them.
Again, this is not just an HR issue. To implement solutions, leaders have to buy in, as well as be informed and on the same page. This will require conversations to set intentions and next steps.
3. Bring in the help of a leadership training program.
When companies need strong leaders to help navigate change, they may need the help of an external program to train leaders in how to do this. Our clients bring in Fierce because their leaders need to know how to coach, give feedback, and have confrontational conversations.
Training can help you avoid an important tipping point in your organization. For example, another prospect I spoke with recently felt they had to fire one of their employees. They didn't want to do this, but at the time they didn't see any other solution. Consequently, it created negative vibes within the company and was cancerous to the entire team. Bad culture move. And training could've prevented the entire situation from happening.
If your company is in the process of rapid growth, I can't stress this enough: take action now rather than later. It's harder to create new pathways once bad cultural habits have formed. You have a chance right now to shift your culture in a positive direction now and prevent an unfortunate cultural catastrophe down the road.
If you're considering leadership training in your company, I recommend reading our latest whitepaper here on what you need to know before making any final decisions.