Friday, October 28, 2011

The Challenges of Growth…

I’ve just past the first year anniversary of writing this blog (truth be told, when I started this entry, I was just coming up on the date, which leads me to this topic). It started with an invitation to some trusted friends and colleagues to tell me if I was crazy for wanting to write some of these ideas down. With some encouragement, it continued. While I have realized that having a day job seems to get in the way of writing and marketing these thoughts (see early point), I have come to find it a respite from some of the other challenges of professional life.

Which brings me to the point for today – as I think about the idea of Plan B Philosophy that I have been writing about, sometimes it seems that things are just that easy. Adapt, change, make due and move on. Plan B. Slam dunk.

Of course life is not that easy. Even in times when things are going well we have challenges. In fact, many times there are real and significant challenges when we are growing the fastest. Volume outstrips infrastructure and processes. We need to find people to help when we are the busiest. We are just operating in a “read and react” mode – like a quarterback with a rushing defensive line, we are looking at what is coming at us and trying to make the right decision in the moment. It is hard to keep your eyes down field when there are people right in your face.

It is exactly at this time that I remind myself of this axiom that I have said many times: The challenges of growth are better than the challenges of not growing, but they are still challenges.

I have had times in my professional career where my companies have been challenged to achieve growth or financial performance. People get grumpy and start pointing fingers. “If only we had listened to my ideas…” or “why can’t sales deliver…” or “if operations would just get things right…” The focus turns inward, the second guessing and proverbial Monday morning quarterbacking begins. Those times are not fun. I have had one experience in my professional life where we had to lay off a few people because our spending got ahead of where we projected our growth to be. It was unpleasant and I really don’t want to go there again. Just in the Des Moines Register, the founder of Pinterest (an Iowan by the way) talked about his displeasure of silence when their app went down (

But the challenges of growth can be just as big of a challenge. In our companies, we are experiencing an abundance of growth opportunities. The opportunities are great. They are awesome. And they create challenges. The laws of physics sometimes apply and there are only so many hours in the day. I find myself saying, “Sorry I am late on this response” a bit too often. I am disappointed in myself for not being able to respond in what I believe is a reasonable timeframe. And yet the opportunities are happening for all the right reasons.

When you have a product or service or approach that resonates in the market and hits the right environment, that’s when growth explodes. Your phone starts ringing rather than always having to make cold calls. Customers are seeking you out. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but the biorhythm cycle seems to be just right. You look around like Robert Redford at the end of the movie The Candidate and say, “Now what?"

And it is just as challenging as when nothing was going right.

Which growth opportunities are the best? If we are going to entertain partnerships, which will best serve our long-term business? Everyone is going a hundred miles per hour and the communication we want between our teams isn’t as smooth as it could be. People feel stressed, excited, left out, fearful and exhilarated all at the same time.

So what to do?

I should likely ask you. One of my key learnings in the year of writing this blog is that great ideas and dialogues come back from you. But here are a few things that I have focused on:

1. Make sure you keep one eye on the future, even as you have to keep one eye on the present.

This is hard. There are deadlines and contracts and approvals and meetings and presentations to finish. Work hours start to expand into places where you don’t want them – infringing on family time, personal time even beyond where you are normally comfortable (because work-life balance is rarely 50-50, huh?). But at the same time you feel in a groove. This is the place when I try to look to my blind side. What am I missing? Is there anything that I am missing that could kill us? Am I taking my focus off our long term vision for a short term fix? I find doing this outside the office is the most useful. A couple hours at the coffee shop getting things in perspective is useful. And I do this is an old school way – me and my legal pad, sketching out the opportunities and risks. The important thing is to do it. Invest the time to step back and see the proverbial forest for the trees.

2. Don’t forget to make sure the team is with you and find someone who will tell you the truth.

In all fairness, this is one of my weaknesses. There is a joke about a leader blazing a trail and at some point he turns around and finds that no one is following him. Those that work with me would likely suggest that sometime I can outkick my coverage (hat trick - three football analogies in one blog entry!). I have great teammates who will suggest that I need to come back to reality and focus on what we can accomplish and by when. Rarely is this in a “we can’t do it” but rather “we want to do it right for our customer/partner/cardmember, so let’s make sure we can get it done.” That’s a valuable skill to have on your team. In fact, in my study of the great founders and entrepreneurs, they always had a partner who would balance their focus on growth in a way that moved the business forward (see Apple, Starbucks, Microsoft).

3. Know when too much is really too much.

This is even harder for an entrepreneur or a person who loves to drive growth. I always say that I am a bad one to judge opportunities, because life looks like a big buffet of great food and my eyes are always bigger than my stomach. But there is a time where we need to actually say “no” (or for me, “not now”). That is almost as hard as juggling the opportunities.

4. Realize that true success is more than one week/month/quarter/year away

This too is hard (hey if it was easy, why write about it?). When you are battling monthly financials, that problem or a compressed project timeline, realize that while it is hard, the true measurement of success is rarely defined in a short period of time. While there are some exceptions, most often in emergencies (see FEMA’s lack of performance post-Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis of 2008 and maybe Europe today), most of us judge true success over a longer period. It is hard to think even in the medium term when there are so many things that are urgent today. But we need to make sure that the short-term aligns with the long-term.

In the end, I’m not sure if my strategies are optimized to manage hyper-growth, but they are what I think about (of course, maybe you should ask my teammates if they actually work). I would love feedback on what has worked for you (yeah you – the one out there who tells me that I meant to post in the comments but didn’t or was going to wait to later).

In the end, I think this is one of the fundamental truths: The challenges of growth are certainly better than the challenges of not growing, but they are still challenges.