Leading in turbulent times.

Building an agile and empowered culture

Contrary to popular perception, the best leaders for growing businesses over the longer term are not those who have all the insights and answers, nor the ones who excel at adding value to any conversation or idea.

Don’t get me wrong, in a turnaround situation or for a couple of years of rapid change or expansion, those are extremely useful traits to be able to deploy. But over the longer term, they actually constrain growth, quite markedly.

I see this time and again in businesses that plateau around the big growth thresholds of £10-30m turnover, the £150m mark, and the £1bn barrier, give or take. It’s not because of those numbers per-se, but because of what transitioning into a significantly larger business means for the people and leadership within it.

As a business grows, the role of the leader changes dramatically. And as it continues to grow, so do the roles of the executive team, and the wider senior management group. It is these internal changes that are most often responsible for creating those plateaus – the business outgrows its leadership’s capacity to grow it further.

A lot of CEOs struggle with this, but it’s not surprising. When an employee goes from managing a team to managing a department, they generally get a new job description, a short induction and hopefully a bunch of training. When a CEO grows a £20m business into a £100m business, there’s no single point on that journey when someone pulls them aside a explains what needs to change.

A few instinctively understand it and pre-empt it one way or another. Richard Branson developed the idea that once a business unit passes 100 people it should be split. In contrast, Bill Gates hired professional manager Steve Ballmer as his thirtieth employee, then made Steve look after hiring everyone else for the next three decades.

The point is, the best leaders see this coming and realise that, as the business continues to grow, their relationship with it, and their role within it, has to change. They will need different people around them, and they will need to let go, if they want to grow.

The leader who is constantly suggesting ideas must, at some point, become the leader who builds that capacity in others across the organisation, to the point where their role becomes primarily to ask: “What do you think?” and to say: “Sounds great, go do it!”

Likewise, the prescient font of wisdom and business instinct must, at some point, become the constant gardener of next generation talent, or the business will be suffocated by the tightening bottleneck at its top.

So, why am I telling you this now? What makes this an essential topic for March 2021?

Three reasons: first, these are uncertain times, so all business have to be agile. And what agility demands is empowered people at all levels, who can recognise and interpret the changes they see, and who can adapt locally and link across teams to create a wider wave of change.

Second, as we emerge from this era-defining event, the next couple of years represent an extraordinary opportunity for growth, and the last thing you need is to get stuck on a plateau while your competitors fly on by.

And third, because right now we’re in a state of flux: so much has changed over the last 12 months and will continue to change over the months to come, that there has never been a better time to change how you lead.  

Now is the time to reinvent your leadership for your next phase of growth.