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How to Shatter the 30-Employee Ceiling If your team's growth has stalled, examine whether your managers are leading through expertise or curiosity.

By Krister Ungerboeck

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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In a recent Harvard Business Review article, researcher Eva de Mol identified a critical element of startup success: that experience alone won't make a team successful. And data from Adecco USA confirms that experience isn't everything, as 62 percent of hiring teams report reducing the experience needed for new hires. In her research, de Mol found that soft skills like shared passion and a cohesive vision are far more important traits to encourage in a startup team.

Yet during early team-building phases, most founders or managers lead primarily through expertise. In other words, founders and entrepreneurs share their vast knowledge stores, leading others to immediate solutions when problems arise. This is akin to sharing the answers to a test, but top performers don't want or need that kind of hand-holding. Many even find it insulting. Plus, it relies on one person's experience, depriving the team of more diverse thoughts and ideas, especially as the company grows and encounters new challenges. This leading by experience often causes companies or managers at larger organizations to hit two team-growth ceilings: one at 10 employees and the other at 30. These lags can cause an extreme growth bottleneck, especially at the 30-employee mark. Instead of leading by experience, leaders and managers must completely shift their styles to accommodate further growth. Otherwise, they will languish with fewer than three dozen workers and possibly stall further scaling.

According to Census Bureau research, 89 percent of America's nearly six million businesses have fewer than 20 people on the payroll. And Guidant Financial data has discovered that small companies say it's tougher than ever to woo and keep talent. For that reason alone, fledgling operations should rethink old-style management techniques to reduce the likelihood of constant turnover and disengagement. Besides, leading by expertise simply isn't efficient when one person becomes the go-to authority on everything.

Case in point: For quite a while, I was an expertise leader with a line of people outside the door, hundreds of emails and a ton of stress. A wiser leadership style for a company that's hit 20 or more team members is leading with curiosity. Questions lead; answers follow. If you aren't leading with questions, then you're following with answers. Leaders who put curiosity foremost ask questions to elicit ideas and lead people to their own solutions. Those concepts are often imaginative and fascinating because they come from different mindsets. By revamping my style from authoritarian to coach, I gave my people the freedom to make our company better and break through the 30-person glass ceiling.

Related: How Perpetual Curiosity Can Lead You to Success

If you're struggling because people leave before you can take your business to the next level, consider whether you could benefit from a leadership style overhaul. Below are several strategies I've trusted to move my team from merely existing to prospering.

1. Hand out autonomy raises.

Micromanaging can be helpful in some situations, but across the board, it doesn't make sense. Plus, overmanagement keeps workers from experiencing job satisfaction. Research from the University of Birmingham in the UK revealed that employees who experienced more autonomy also experienced a number of benefits, such as improved well-being.

Generate a "table of autonomy" outlining which actions or operations require approval and which lie in the hands of the doers. As you work to build a diverse team, you'll likely find that some employees need different guidelines than others. Once you've agreed upon those guidelines, allow your best staff members to have freedom within them. By generating a playbook for your talent to gain more authority, you show that mutual trust is within their control.

2. Start questions with "what" or "how."

Mistakes will happen. Stop asking everyone why they erred when they make a misstep. Instead, present a future-forward approach by treating all experiences as learning opportunities. Ask questions like, "What will you do differently after this experience?" or, "How might this experience change the way you operate moving forward?"

The more you change your approach to snags, the richer and more honest your dialogue with people will be. They'll begin to model your questions in their own interactions, helping them become better at evaluating their blunders and coming up with innovative solutions.

Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was known to ask a few pointed questions to help drive the tech giant toward success. Simple inquiries like, "What is not working here?" and, "Why not?" helped him get to the root of problems and encourage employees to offer solutions that would improve the company's products and offerings.

3. Ask, don't tell.

When you feel the desire to give your team answers, pull back. Instead, seek to learn what's in their heads and hearts by asking questions. For instance, when you prepare for meetings, come up with a list of inquiries instead of outlining what you want to tell attendees.

As data culled by Digital Synopsis notes, 95 percent of Google searchers stop at page one. In other words, a lot of people just want to be told what to do. Challenge your people to think for themselves, to value a variety of diverse opinions and to be inquisitive rather than look to you for the right answer every time. The more they hone this skill, the more native it will become.

4. Brainstorm with purpose.

When you encounter a big problem, gather your team. Ask them about their top three options, their ideal outcomes and the resources they'd need to make their ultimate dream solution a reality. Encourage them to identify the true problem source, the assumptions they have about the issue, the lessons learned thus far and what's holding them back from taking further actions. Ask everyone to participate, because as you build out a team of people with differing backgrounds, you'll be more likely to hear a variety of new opinions about problems and ideas for solving them.

You should participate little in the activity -- just step in to reiterate your questions if needed. Within an hour, you should be able to gather quite a bit of information that you can use to follow up with key individuals and drive initiatives. Not only will you lead others to answers, but you'll serve as a mentor rather than an omniscient ruler.

Related: 5 Ways to Transform Your Next Work Brainstorming Session Into Something Really Great

For an example of excellent brainstorming in action, look no further than Pixar's Notes Day. Once a year, the production company halts all other work to make way for an all-employee brainstorm session. Former CEO Ed Catmull said he views his leadership position as a chance to support his employees, not to get in the spotlight. Offering Notes Day presents Pixar with an opportunity to do just that and ensure all voices are heard throughout the organization.

Worried that you can't seem to get traction when it comes to boosting your team's numbers? Investigate your leadership practices. Focusing on leading from a place of curiosity could make all the difference.

Krister Ungerboeck

Leadership Keynote Speaker and CEO Coach

Krister Ungerböck is a keynote speaker, award-winning CEO and author. He's also the founder of the global Talk SHIFT movement, which aims to transform frustrating relationships through powerful changes to our words.

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