This is a conundrum. You are early in your career in the tech industry and you love working for a small start-up. You enjoy the pace, the energy, and the innovation. Every day you feel you are making an impact. The company is laser focused on growth and success and the culture is all about winning. Life is good.
But, what happens when your company outgrows you?
My consulting business helps growing companies to scale. My clients are mostly companies that have emerged from their start-up stage or more established companies that are at or have gone through an inflection point. Both groups share a problem described by the Marshall Goldsmith quote “what got us to here, won’t get us there”. The 3P’s (People, Product and Process) that built the company to this point are no longer keeping up to the growth trajectory desired.
For many companies who have emerged from their start-up phase, this inflection point is represented by the shift from investment capital funded growth to sustainability through balanced revenue and profitability. The “Rule of 40” can no longer be satisfied by 60% growth with negative EBITDA. For more established companies, the inflection point is often related to the complexity of managing multiple products or industries in multiple geographies with a large staff and lots of moving parts.
In both cases, their businesses have outgrown the capabilities of their 3P’s. Leading a team of many hundreds of people is a different proposition to leading a team of a few dozen. I recall a CEO sharing with me in a private moment his fear of leading his company that had become bigger than any company that he has ever worked in.
To manage in their new reality of success, companies embark on an agenda of change that likely touches every thread and stitch in the fabric of their business. When this happens, employees tell me that they feel ungrounded. Everything is changing and the pace of change feels like it is constant and accelerating.
Company leadership often changes. Some longtime leaders leave because they are no longer enjoying the job. It is not what they signed up for, no longer aligned to their skills or strengths and often, because of the wealth they have built through the company’s growth, they have financial independence to pursue other interests. Others may depart less favourably because they are failing to adapt to the new world or are resisting the change and have become an obstacle.
New leaders join the company. Many of them come from larger companies with broader and different skills, experiences, and expectations. Long-time employees feel a spectrum of emotions ranging from excitement and exhilaration in dealing with change and new opportunities for learning and personal growth, to fear and confusion as to their place in this new company order. Like some of their departed leaders, some employees also may feel their job is no longer the one they signed up for or not necessarily focused any more on the things they enjoyed most.
Against this backdrop, how does a person navigate their career?
First, understand who you are. There are people who like working for companies of a specific size or at a specific stage. There are those who enjoy larger organizations because of the stability, predictability, and resources available to do complex work. At the other end, there are those more entrepreneurial who thrive on the building phase, the high energy bordering on chaos, and the agility and nimbleness required.
If you are in the latter category, as your company grows and these attributes that you love are no longer as valued, you may need to leave and cycle to a different company whose growth is at the stage you enjoy. This move may only last a few years until that new company as also grown out of that stage you enjoy and then you will have to cycle again. While this may sound like harsh advice, if you dislike and are intolerant of process and structure, then leave, before you are asked to. Recognizing that this course of action requires significant risk tolerance, self-confidence, and courage, it is likely your best career course.
If your priorities are different, and you want to stay at a company through its many stages of growth, your plan needs to be different. I have had the opportunity to work at or with, companies ranging from multi-billion-dollar multi-nationals to startups seeking their first round of funding and those at most of the stages in between. As a result, I have seen and been part of “what good looks like” and “what doesn’t work” for most of these growth stages. This experience has allowed me the flexibility to work with companies at all stages and evolve with them as they grow. If this sounds appealing, then gaining experience early in your career with companies of different sizes and maturity can be a good career strategy. Like dating, this allows you to figure out with whom you are compatible and gain experience that will serve you well later in your career.
The other course is to learn to embrace change. Recognize your company may need to be very different a few years from now than it is today. Don’t resent new leaders who join your company because they are taking away promotion opportunities that you were aspiring for. With growth, there will be many other leadership and career opportunities that open. Rather embrace and learn from these new leaders. They likely bring necessary skills and experience that are foreign to you.
Don’t passively resist the need to change. Accept that “your cheese has moved” . Your long-standing internal networks, your powerbase and your career plans may be disrupted. Build new ones. Manage the frustration and find the excitement in the change.
Find new mentors, both inside and outside your company, who have worked for strong companies that are of the size that your company is about to become. Educate yourself on what the future will look like and prepare for acquiring the skills you will need before you need them.
If you are still early in your career and currently working with a early-stage company, consider your next job move to a larger company to gain experience in how more complex organizations run. A job is not a life sentence. If you love working in smaller companies, you can move back into this sector later with additional experiences that will be valued.
Navigating a career is challenging. Don’t just let yourself get consumed in the maelstrom of daily job. Take some time to lift your head and plan your career. If you don’t, fate will plan it for you.