Of all the changes I’ve had to make, the most profound has been in my style of leadership. I have learnt that the scale-up stage requires a very different approach to this key part of my role.
In this post I’ll try to explain the style I’ve developed and how to recognise when it’s time to switch styles.
Leading a start-up – driving up front
In the early stages of a business most of the energy that drives things forwards comes from the leader.
When The Clean Space was a start-up, it was just like that. I was present every day in the office, dictating everything that had to be done. I set every agenda and deadline, and generated every idea.
Motivating the team required daily pushing and shoving.
I answered every question and fixed every major problem. I took charge of everything, including the movements of every one of my staff.
The business was like my infant child – I had my eye on and was aware of absolutely everything. And to develop that child it was down to me to show it the way.
It was necessary to be in complete control of everything to ensure that the business progressed at the right pace and in the right way. However, as the business moved towards the scale-up stage, it became clear the business would not develop if I continued to do everything on my own.
Leading a scale-up – supporting from the side
Having moved into the scale up stage, I realised the business needed a different approach to continue its development. Driving and pushing wasn’t working anymore and things had grown too big for me to have my hands on everything.
Although my approach was more hands off, I manage to remain in charge, and make decisions without being too controlling.
As I’ve written about before, my first move was to set up a Senior Management Team to whom I delegated not only the day-to-day running of the business but also its ongoing development.
Now I wanted the people in that team to bring their own ideas and take hold of key areas of the business. To do that effectively, they needed to be strong, independent, capable individuals.
The kind of people that don’t like to be shoved.
My infant child had become a teenager and you simply can’t tell a teenager what to do.
I realised to get the best out of these people I needed to switch into a more supportive role – providing guidance and helping them to achieve their goals.
Instead of starting each week telling people what needs to be done and by when, I ask them what their priorities are, how long it will take and what I can do to help.
Instead of being all over people while they are doing their work, I get out of the way to let them execute but hold them to account if they miss their own deadlines.
Instead of banging the drum to energise the team and get them moving, I create the right incentives and the right environment for people to be inherently self-motivated and trust them to deliver.
Instead of diving all over problems to try to fix them, I step aside and help the team figure out their own solutions for themselves.
Instead of controlling every move, I clarify the boundaries within which they could move and let them get on with it.
Instead of giving all the new ideas, I ask probing questions to stimulate people’s own ideas.
Unlike the start-up phase, when I was a driving force. I am now a nurturing figure, encouraging others to develop and reach their full potential.
How I maintain control
In my new style, one of the greatest challenges I faced was how I could maintain the critical element of control that the business needed from me (and I needed for myself). Successful leadership always takes people in a direction and the key question was how I could provide that direction without ‘telling’.
My answer to this problem was to maintain ownership and control of specific areas of the business that I haven’t delegated to the team: strategy, culture and governance.
Our strategy provides a blueprint for the Senior Management Team to work towards. It is a written document and provides the vision of what The Clean Space needs to become in the coming few years. Around that vision, the team then set their short-term objectives.
Our culture clarifies how people are expected to behave in line with our values. It allows me to define how people go about their day-to-day work.
Our governance outlines a list of decisions that must be referred to the Directors for sign-off, ensuring that no big decisions can be made without my say so.
Those three things are all I need to satisfy my hunger for control of the ship. If I know the team are working towards a common vision, will behave in the way I want and can’t make any seismic decisions without my input, then I’m happy. Everything else I can leave to the team
Identifying the time to change
I knew it was time to switch modes when I realised my stress levels were accelerating towards breaking point the more the company grew in size.
As a result of doing too much, my ability to manage began to suffer under the strain. I was frantic, stressed, and set myself up for disappointment by being too demanding and having unrealistic expectations of how long things would take.
I realised one person can drive 15-20 others, but anything above that was a struggle. I assessed the experience and capabilities of my team, and recognised that whilst junior members of the team still needed to be driven, seniors would only need to be supported and nurtured.
The key questions for me:
- Are you working long hours doing lots of day-to-day operational tasks and often dropping the ball?
- Has it been too long since you put your mind to thinking about the higher level direction of the business?
- Do you have strong capable people in the team who are bringing good ideas to the table?
- Has your business growth stalled?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, maybe it’s time to change.
Switching my leadership style has reduced my stress levels and given me space and time to work on critical tasks that only I can do. It has resulted in a team of people below me who are motivated, excited and have real ownership over their work. Most importantly, it’s returned the business to double-digit growth.
This change has not been easy and has required a lot of self-awareness and self-discipline but without it the business wouldn’t be able to grow further.
Is it time you did the same?