Leading a successful, rapidly growing organization can be one of the most thrilling, liberating and stressful things a person can do. Those of us who have taken the plunge into the world of entrepreneurship know, firsthand, that this life is anything but boring.
As I’ve watched my business grow over the years, I’ve often reflected on the sheer number of decisions I made each day and the priorities that had to be juggled in order to stay nimble in the face of tremendous competition. And I’m not alone.
I’m extremely fortunate that both readers and new entrepreneurs often reach out to me to share their stories and lessons learned. I always appreciate the opportunity to meet and interact with so many fantastic entrepreneurs and to learn from each of their experiences.
Can I Answer This Question Alone?
When originally conceptualizing this article, I started with the intent to try answering the question, “What are the greatest priorities for a rapidly growing company?”. But as I began to think about my own response to that question, I realized that the answer may not be valuable or applicable to everyone.
Instead, I feel the best way to find the answer is to ask other successful entrepreneurs who are in the trenches, leading their own organizations through rapid growth. This way, we can explore the commonalities and differences that may exist across several successful, growing companies.
These entrepreneurs come from all walks of life and represent a wide variety of businesses. I asked each of the CEOs three simple questions in order to gauge not only the types of priorities they each had, but also to see if there are any similarities or key differences to be gleaned from multiple perspectives.
Jonathan Raymond, CEO of Refound, a leadership training company that offers membership coaching support to managers who want to become mentors. Jonathan is also the author of the new book, Good Authority: How to Become the Leader Your Team is Waiting For.
Nathan Munits is President of Longwave Financial, based in New York City. Longwave Financial provides financial advisory and asset management services.
Bruce Eckfeldt is CEO of Eckfeldt & Associates, a New York City-based consultancy and coaching practice.
Taylor Wallace is the cofounder of WeVue, a SAAS-based platform designed to help companies actively engage their employees in idea generation and decision-making.
Here’s what these CEOs had to say about their journeys in the wild lands of growth and prioritization, along with my own thoughts on the topic.
Question #1: What are your biggest current business priorities?
Raymond: My biggest priority is developing a truly great customer onboarding experience. We’re a startup and are blessed to have a core group of highly motivated clients, but we’re always looking for ways to make it simpler and more fun to do business with us.
Munitz: For us, growth is the number one priority. I’m always happy to invest in staff and systems but it all flows from new business coming in the door.
Eckfeldt: Identifying key/new customer needs that are not being serviced by traditional learning and development companies. The high-tech, new-economy business world, coupled with the new workforce generation and trends towards a free-lancer economy, is changing professional and career development. We want to find needs and fill them with innovative products and services.
Wallace: Sales and improving our products to better serve our customers and our market.
Cancialosi: For me, it’s about continuing to scale the company in order to solidify our brand as a major influence in the industry. In order to accomplish this, we’ve heavily invested in the development of our team members so that they can provide consistent, high-quality services to our clients.
Question #2: How have these priorities changed since you started your business?
Raymond: When we first started, which was only eight months ago, we didn’t know who we were yet. We were still developing what we call the Refound Philosophy, and figuring out who our ideal customer was and how we could best help them. We’ll never stop asking that question, of course, but we’ve shifted our focus a bit to the experience of the people who have found us to make their world better and trust that the rest will follow.
Munitz: I have maintained growth as priority one since day one. The difference is with so many more demands today that it is a continual challenge to maintain that focus.
Eckfeldt: We’ve evolved from coaching individuals to addressing the broader organizational needs of high-growth businesses. We’ve had to think and act more holistically and strategically with our services and products and how our customers use them.
Wallace: As a software company, we have gone through phases of market research, pure development, and heavy fundraising. But once those priorities were advanced we needed to work towards continued revenue growth.
Cancialosi: When I started out, the priority was survival focused. Get clients, generate revenue and add value as we did it. As we matured and scaled, we became intently focused on building out a solid infrastructure (systems, processes, etc.) to lay a sustainable foundation for growth. Now the focus is on developing the team so that they can successfully and consistently execute on the framework that we’ve established.
Question #3: Where would you suggest leaders of rapidly growing businesses focus their energies to ensure their continued success?
Raymond: Accountability, accountability and accountability. You’re setting the tone for the culture of the future and there is a risk that the choices you make now are based solely on the fact that they may be easier. Looking the other way on an underperforming employee, letting bad founder behavior slide, etc. will come back to bite you later. Oh, and don’t overpromise equity and incentives. The right people don’t go to work for those things in the long run, and it really just serves as an easy band-aid to cover up deeper cultural issues.
Munitz: A close second priority for us (aside from growth) is creating process. A great piece of advice I once read is that if you need to do something more than twice, you should create a process around it. We try to instill that in our people so we can continue to maintain a high level of service, even while we continue to experience rapid growth.
Eckfeldt: In our experience, growth is generally limited by a very small set of factors at any given point in time. The trick is to find the true bottlenecks to a company’s growth at that moment—it could be people, money, operations, or strategy—and focus your efforts on removing that constraint. Then as you do, to keep watching for the constraint to shift to some other area, which it will. As a business leader, the goal is to find the right thing to focus on now, and to stay vigilant for shifting constraints.
Wallace: Make sure you start spending time on the business instead of in the business. It’s so easy to just keep your head down and focus on what you think needs to be done, but if you don’t start planning, you can quickly expel unnecessary energy in the wrong direction. We recently started doing focused, 90-day planning that cascades five objectives down from our vision and mission. Every team member knows if they are working on something, it needs to align with one of those objectives. If it doesn’t, they either shouldn’t be working on it or we need to revisit the objectives. It’s allowed us an unprecedented level of focus with no micromanagement.
Cancialosi: My advice? Focus on something. In my experience working with hundreds of business leaders over the last sixteen years, I’ve found that focusing on nothing or, conversely, focusing on too much often leads to little of substance being accomplished. Those leaders who are able to identify their options and carefully select two or three key areas of focus tend to be those who make the largest sustainable gains. When taking this approach, they are able to see tangible momentum and, once they are satisfied with their progress, they can then turn their attention to the next highest priorities.
Four Key Takeaways For Rapidly Growing Companies
These four entrepreneurs come for diverse backgrounds and their businesses are all in different industries. But there are some interesting commonalities and insights that can be culled from their stories.
- Don’t try to conquer the world. Rapidly growing companies are full of one thing: change. The operating environment can change on a dime and having the ability to quickly assess the situation and triage the most important things to focus on is critical. Trying to tackle too many things at once leaves you exhausted and you usually fail to make significant headway in anything in the way you’d like.
- Maintain focus until you’re satisfied with your performance. One pitfall that I’ve seen (and I’ve experienced firsthand) is jumping from priority to priority before you’ve achieved the level of progress you need. A laser focus on fewer priorities will help you, and your team, ensure your efforts are moving the organization in the most important direction at that time.
- It’s all about managing the dynamic tensions. To me, this is what makes being a leader so difficult. The ability to effectively take stock of your current operating environment and prioritize work effort without losing sight of the fact that you’re trying to balance your business on the head of a pin. To drive sustainable success, leaders must focus on the external as well as the internal. We must be consistent while also being flexible enough to adapt to changes in the business environment. Quinn and Cameron’s competing values framework does a masterful job of articulating these dynamic tensions that all leaders must continue to manage in order to be most successful.
- Planning and prioritization is an iterative process. For most small, growing businesses, the strategic planning cycles that extend past a couple of years don’t seem to hold much water. The business environment changes so frequently and so dramatically today that I advocate for a more short-term planning cycle. This allows for a more rapid cadence of assessing and adapting one’s plan. This way, companies begin to see strategic planning less as an annual process that they have to live (or die) by no matter what happens, and begin to view it as a continuous learning and evolutionary process. An iterative approach like this affords organizations to stay nimble and to prioritize those activities that will have the most benefit to their organizations at that time.
Leading a rapidly growing company is no easy task. In today’s fast-paced business environment, there are a lot of things that demand your attention as an entrepreneur. The ability to understand the context in which you operate, identify all of the areas of possible focus, and be disciplined enough to dedicate your full attention to a prioritized subset of tasks will allow you the opportunity to have more impact in those areas that are most important to your success. Developing this positive momentum will help you step back occasionally to reassess, and adjust your priorities as things in your environment evolve.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.