How to ease growing pains when scaling a business

As your organisation grows in size, make sure that your internal culture scales accordingly with these helpful tips

Author: Devon Maloney23rd December 2019Illustration by Abbey Lossing

Scaling a business is no easy task. From hiring more people to increasing overhead costs, accelerated company growth can lead to tension between leaders and their teams. Long-time employees might get nervous when they hear the terms ‘scaling up’ or ‘rapid growth’, because it could mean shifting job titles and the adoption of new processes and tools.

Molly Graham knows this all too well. As the former head of operations at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – and a veteran of Facebook, Google and Quip – she is well versed in growth and change. She’s scaled teams as small as a handful of people into teams of hundreds and eventually thousands. As a result, she has spent years learning how rapid growth can not only fray nerves, but also the relationships that make or break a company as it scales.

In 2017, Graham gave a talk about how scaling a business often hinges on how effectively the interpersonal culture of the organisation is allowed to grow. Here are some of her most helpful strategies, tools and tips for staying human while scaling.

1. Encourage an ethos among employees to ‘give away your Lego’

In the early days of an organisation’s development, Graham points out, everyone has to do many different kinds of work. But as the organisation grows, it’s not uncommon for new hires to take on some of these tasks. While expansion can be exciting for all the new opportunities that it presents, some teams may feel overwhelmed at first and struggle to adapt.

That’s why Graham’s advice is to ‘give away your Lego’ to others along the way. She uses the process of building full-scale Lego structures as a metaphor for the knowledge that team members gain as they build a product or service with others. In the past, she’s observed how everyone starts out knowing that one person can’t possibly do all the work. They might even be relieved to get extra help.

‘And then an interesting thing happens’, Graham says. ‘You get nervous, frustrated and territorial over your job functions.’

It’s a perfectly natural and human response, but it can impede progress. The key is to not get too emotionally attached to specific tasks and to try to find enjoyment in discovering and exploring the new Lego that you get to assemble.

’Adding more people doesn’t actually make less work for you. What it does is enable the entire company to do more.’

Molly GrahamFormer head of operations, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

2. Ensure adoption of new tools and processes by establishing psychological safety

Psychological safety – a shared feeling that it’s OK to be open and honest in a group setting – matters significantly in a scaling company, where roles are changing rapidly as more and more people are brought on board.

‘A lot of the conversations I’ve had with people who’ve worked for me started when someone was like, “Why are we hiring that person?”’ says Graham. ‘At the end of the day, what they’re really saying is, “I’m worried I’m not going to be valuable any more, I’m feeling insecure, please help me.”’

Inevitably, a scaling organisation will also need to adopt new technologies or workflows to accommodate that expansion. Perhaps a company-wide digital transformation may even be in order – an overhaul of how teams work together in addition to the tech that they’re using to get that work done.

Yet existing employees may react warily to changing processes or even resist them, which limits their teams’ abilities to be effective. To help these employees when scaling a business, take an empathetic approach to change management and lead from a place of transparency: own up to the processes that you might still be struggling to incorporate yourself, create a judgment-free space for your people to voice their concerns and make time for regular check-ins.

‘Digital transformation is more of a culture shift than it is a company-wide memo’, says Christina Kosmowski, the vice president and global head of customer success and services at Slack. ‘A top-down, “because I said so” mentality doesn’t work when introducing new tools and new ways of working. But when managers and leaders follow empathetic change-management processes and source input from across the company, this transformation can really take root.’

Graham has what she calls ‘empathy sessions’ with individual teammates when she’s been sensing hostility, to understand their stress, reassure them of their value and show them how a new digital workplace will benefit them in the long run.

‘I would sit [these teammates] down and say, “OK, number one, you’re extremely important”’, says Graham. ‘“It’s going to be OK. You’re going to feel this way for the next three weeks, and then [eventually] you’re going to be fine.”’ Which, she adds, is all part of the process.

3. Promote trust in leadership by seeking feedback and establishing relationships

Countless studies have shown the correlation between engaged employees and trust in leadership; and soliciting feedback – and acting on it – is key. When scaling a business, demonstrating that the people steering the ship are ready and willing to act on behalf of their workers’ needs, and will continue to do so as the organisation grows, can be critical.

‘The truth is, relationships are one of the most important things inside organisations that are changing all the time’, says Graham. ‘Taking the time to get to know the people you work with, even people that are irrelevant currently to your job, and definitely people that are not powerful right now inside of the current power structure, is actually an extremely powerful tool.’

So if you’re getting negative feedback from employees who are seriously resistant to new tools and workflows, consider the following if you want to maintain employee engagement:

  • Ask whether these new processes mesh organically with how your teams work together
  • You may need to slow your roll-out of certain tools
  • If the workflows that were chosen and developed aren’t meeting your teams’ needs as they expand, you may need to rethink your approach

‘Building and scaling companies is really hard in really unexpected ways’, Graham says. ‘Insecurity is normal. The challenge is not allowing emotions or egos to control you. It’s part of the process.’

4. Help employees to adopt a mindset of adaptation

As integral as leadership is to successfully scaling a business, people at the top can only do so much if employees don’t have the strategies that they need to work and grow effectively. Wherever possible, help them to adopt the following mindsets that Graham recommends:

  • Don’t worry about your job title: instead, be the most useful person in the room. You’ll gain a reputation for being a problem-solver, and people will notice and bring you along.
  • Ask simple questions: ‘You can learn anything if you’re willing to sound foolish in a large meeting’, Graham says. Your teammates probably had the same question but were too afraid to ask.
  • Be helpful to everyone at every level: meaningful contributions can come from anyone, and you never know when you’ll need someone’s help or need an advocate further down the road.

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