The First Rule For Fast Growing Businesses? Scale Yourself
If you don't, you might find that you're your business's own worst enemy. I've had personal experience with this. If you don't scale yourself into the leader your business needs, you'll just end up dragging everyone down.
In 2007, at the tender age of 25, I made the leap from a background in strategy consulting, corporate management, and SME management, to starting a business. Driven by a passion to solve the unemployment crisis in South Africa, I launched Edge Growth to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses fast.
In 2008, we built our corporate advisory business, to help large South African corporations grow their suppliers. In 2009, I handed that over to start building our second business unit, an SME investment business. We raised capital from a bank and started a fund to provide risk capital to high-growth businesses.
The timing was awful, coinciding with the global financial crisis and recession of 2008 to 2010. All banks were under immense pressure and that pressure translated directly into highly stressed executives placing immense pressure on us.
At one point, we were given an ultimatum to achieve totally unrealistic targets or we'd be fired (resulting in our business being shut down). The pressure was unbelievable. I felt like I was gripped in a bear hug, inside a pressure cooker, at the bottom of the ocean. I was sleeping two to three hours a night and was chronically hyper-anxious.
Increasingly, I realised my team hated working with me. The pressure was breaking down trust and we were constantly in conflict. Team performance took a dive, and good people left. Slowly I had to confront the reality that it was me. It was my fault. I was the problem. It's not easy realising the biggest problem in your own business is you.
The level of leadership required under the circumstances had outgrown me. I had become the main constraint to our business.
Nearly a decade later, with a few honorary degrees from the school of business building (plus a litany of battle scars) under my belt, it's become obvious to me that the experience was inevitable. Building a business is tough, full stop.
But I was also building a fund for the first time and building a business for the first time. I was an executive with zero support structures (unlike in corporate settings) for the first time. I was figuring things out along the way and frankly, at the age of 30, I had a lot to figure out.
The problem is that 18-hour work days don't give you much room or time to think about yourself, your business or where you need to improve and develop.
Growing rapidly under those circumstances, it was inevitable that I'd discover the ceiling of my business management ability was too low. I've since learnt that this is true of almost all entrepreneurs scaling a business fast, for the first time.
Over the years, I've seen the same pattern playing out in most of the fast growing businesses we invest in or advise: The business outgrows the leadership and the CEO or top two to three people become the biggest constraint in the business.
It was through my own painful experience — and that of other CEOs I walked the road with — that I learnt the painful lesson, what got you here, won't get you there.
The skills and disciplines that made you successful up until now and created your current opportunities, are insufficient to make you successful in those opportunities. As a business grows, the skills required to run that business change, and get increasingly difficult to build.
Most entrepreneurs don't have the skills to run a larger, more complex organisation beyond a 20 to 50-person headcount. These businesses take a lot of time and effort to build, and the owners are so trapped in the hyper-pressure vortex of day-to-day business that they do nothing about gearing up their own management capabilities to match the needs of a scaled business.
Soon enough, the business "gets stuck' in No Man's Land, constantly repeating a chaotic fight for survival, because its complexity is just too much for the level of managerial competence.
Seeing this pattern play out painfully in business after business has convinced me that the single biggest constraint to economic growth and job creation in South Africa is this issue: CEOs in fast growing businesses becoming outgrown by their successful businesses.
I'm so passionate about this issue I've launched a new business to solve this problem. It's called The 10X Entrepreneur. Our mission is to help founders 10X themselves and their teams, so that they can 10X their businesses.
If you're scaling a company for the first time, here are my key tips:
1. Study business scaling
Jim Collins and Jack Welch books are great. An MBA is useful, but they are woefully inadequate for the job of scaling a business from the ground up. Know the specific journey of scaling a business: The crises, transitions, and what it means for your job as a leader.
2. Focus on your skills
Implement an accelerated personal growth system to build your Scale-Up CEO skills.
3. (Carefully) add competent executives to your senior team
Building critical mass of executive management competence radically accelerates your own growth as a competent entrepreneurial executive. Make sure they are the rare breed that thrive at building from the ground up, not just running organisations that are already built with procedures in place.
4. Make the building of great management systems a primary priority
Learn by doing. But get the help of consultants. Learn from gurus in a quasi-one-on-one coaching relationship and attend business bootcamps.