Opinion: Growth is great… So why does it feel so difficult?

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GROWTH is always a tough one, writes Jenni Field. In smaller businesses, it can happen rapidly and this means everyone in the organisation needs to adapt quickly. There’s always a tipping point when simple conversations and information networks diminish through growth. Catch this too late and you may lose some great employees who were with you from the start.

Equally, if you are part of a larger business that’s expanding nationally or globally – whether through organic growth, pivoting, merger or acquisition – as soon as there are multiple locations, remote working or different organisational cultures coming together, it’s essential that leaders ensure there is excellent communication across the organisation to avoid strategic misalignment. 

With rapid growth – whatever the size of the organisation – comes an important window of opportunity to adapt, re-evaluate processes and ways of working. If you miss this window it can result in toxic chaos, which can lead to poor decision making, loss of purpose or lack of connection with employees. The difficult thing about growth is you have to look at the whole organisation all at once. Symptoms of rapid growth include leaders not knowing how to grow, poor hiring choices, people off on stress leave, cultural friction – from the old to the new, lack of transparency about business performance, and leaders not doing what they say they will (the say-do gap).

The velocity of your organisational growth matters too; growth that happens too quickly can be damaging. About two-thirds of the fastest growing start-ups end up failing. Growth is generally a good thing, but it needs to be done at a reasonable pace or it will quickly feel out of control. 

The leadership growth challenge

Sometimes, the owners of small and medium sized businesses aren’t sure how to grow and struggle to transition from working in the business to working on the business. While in larger businesses, leaders fight to juggle complexity and workload during phases of growth. 

Growth touches every aspect of the organisation. Leaders must be acutely aware of any symptoms of chaos and tackle them head on. 

Although there may be difficulties, growing the business doesn’t have to be painful – it’s about having the time to make sure you have the alignment you need to implement the changes. 

How to overcome the challenges of growth 

The Field ModelTM is a framework developed to help organisations move from chaos to calm by working through three phases of understand, diagnose and fix. First, we have to understand the symptoms of chaos, then we have to diagnose why it’s happening. Often, we rush to fix, but these two phases are critical. 

In the case of fast growth, the diagnostic tool will always be one-to-one interviews; active listening is so important. It’s easy, given the speed you may be working at and the energy it takes, to forget to listen and make time for people. If leaders have been focused on growth, employees can often feel left behind. This must be a conversation about culture, communication, processes, leadership, trust and more. You just won’t get this from a survey.

Here are some practical tips for improving your communication and team relationships when navigating periods of growth.

Take people with you – this is so important when it comes to growth. There’s a lot of change for individuals, especially those who have been with you since the start. They need the time to adjust to changes and there needs to be clarity about why things are changing and what the goal is.

Focus on how you want people to feel – make sure you’ve evolved your strategic narrative to communicate the direction of change and the reasoning behind growth plans. If you don’t have this nailed, focus on how you want people to feel in your organisation and work backwards.

Streamline your processes – you need to put processes in place, and this might involve hiring an operations manager to help you. Robust processes will help you support your organisational culture.

Upskill managers – if the team is growing and roles are changing, managers need to be equipped with the skills to work in the new environment. Additionally, if there is burnout or stress, make sure everyone has the skills to identify this and make changes. Leaders need to support individuals, but they’ll also need to facilitate changes in business processes and culture. Equip everyone to help everyone!

The RASCI model – (responsible, accountable, support, consult, inform) is really helpful when you’re growing. It’s a great way to support decision-making and assign roles and responsibilities and I use this tool frequently.

Invest in coaching – this is a big one to invest in for the founder or leadership team and you must choose the right coach for the individual; someone who challenges, but also supports. Having a coach is an important way to stay on track, tackle behavioural issues and stay accountable. 

Some of this advice may go against natural instincts – particularly if you have an entrepreneurial nature and feel restricted by processes. But you can still innovate and grow with the right team around you. As a leader, team relationships, built through clear and consistent communication are the most important thing for you to nurture as you grow.

Jenni Field is an international speaker, author, podcaster and business communications strategist. In a career spanning nearly 20 years she has worked in the pharmaceutical, defence, retail, hospitality and not-for-profit sectors. It is this experience that contributed to the development of The Field Model™ and her book, Influential Internal Communication. Before setting up Redefining Communications, Field worked as communications director for a global pharmaceutical and was global head of communications for a FTSE 250 hospitality business. Field has her own podcast; Redefining Communications with Jenni Field and co-hosts the award-winning podcast Calm Edged Rebels.