Growth is the main goal for many startups, but managing that growth well is a big challenge. How do you keep your company organized, focused, and culturally coherent even during rapid growth phases?
If you plan for growing pains and how you’ll manage them, you can reap the benefits of fast growth and avoid some of the potential downsides.
Working for a company that’s grown from a tiny startup to more than 1,000 employees, I see the upsides of growth firsthand every day. There are the obvious financial plusses of rising compensation and bonuses. But there are other benefits to growth, too.
Growth creates space for talent, teamwork and learning
Growing, thriving companies attract top talent and make employees proud. Motivated, talented people contribute to more growth by doing great work and spotting new opportunities. So, the talent-growth connection can become an upward spiral that benefits the entire organization, investors, and customers.
Talented people have more room to work in a company that’s growing fast, too. There’s a lot less internal competition, for example, for management and director roles when a company is scaling up. Rather than pit people against each other for limited opportunities for advancement, a growing company can promote many people to new roles. This allows your people to collaborate and solve problems instead of competing against their peers for limited advancement opportunities.
Perhaps the most important benefit of growth is the opportunities for learning it presents. Consider a company of twenty people that grows to more than 1,000 people with offices in different parts of the world. As the organization grows, different roles and locations present new learning curves related to new services, new markets, and new customer cultures. In effect, as the company grows, it builds many different work environments where people can learn and then share that insight within the company.
Planning for (almost) painless growth
Companies face different pain points as they move through the stages of growth. One of the most common problems that growth can cause early on is confusion about roles and responsibilities. Early on, there are typically just a few people taking care of everything. It’s common to see cross-team activity like HR pitching in with finance, for example, because the goal is to get things done quickly.
Confusion arises when it’s not clear who’s ultimately responsible for specific tasks and projects. You can end up with two or more people assuming they’re the lead on one task, while another task goes undone because everyone assumed someone else was taking care of it. The solution is not to force people into silos but to assign clear ownership of tasks to individuals and teams.
Another common early-stage pain point is growth that outpaces hiring. When that happens, there’s a risk of overworking and burning out existing employees by expecting them work more hours than usual. Managers can also face distraction and burnout when recruiting and hiring take up most of their attention.
One way to prevent hiring bottlenecks is to starting building your recruiting pipeline early on. Partner with schools, take part in community business and incubator groups, create internships, and build a strong presence on career-focused social media so jobseekers know who you are and what you’re building. This is how you start the upward spiral of talent and enthusiasm I mentioned earlier.
Growth eventually requires a shift in focus from generalist to specialist skills. In the beginning, the more things a person can do, the better. But as the company gets larger, you start to need specialists. One issue to watch for as roles evolve from generalist to specialist is a decline in creativity. It can happen when people are more siloed in their tasks and interactions. To offset that risk, you can embrace a culture that supports making the “right kind of mistakes”—those made in pursuit of innovation. By fostering freedom and trust, you can maintain the creativity that’s essential for future growth.
The shift toward specialized roles requires a shift in hiring strategy. It also requires a mindset shift for employees who’ve been with you from the start. Some people will adapt to this process, and some will prefer to leave for jobs that let them keep working as generalists. This is a necessary transition, but it can be painful to see teammates you’ve worked with move on.
Once your company’s hiring pipeline is flowing, you face a new growth-related challenge—maintaining your company culture. Here’s why. If you start with twenty people and hire ten more in a year, suddenly a third of your company is brand new. If you want to keep your company culture consistent and healthy, you’ll need to clarify it in writing, screen for a good culture fit during the hiring process and keep it top of mind during team and all-hands meetings.
Ultimately, I think company culture is what leaders should focus on the most during times of growth. Good working relationships and strong commitments to the company’s goals can reduce growing pains, even when things are in transition and there aren’t well designed processes to serve as guides. In a strong culture, your people will use those goals and positive relationships as a foundation to make the most of your company’s growth.