Change. It’s everywhere. Never have we existed in a more volatile world than the one that surrounds us today.
COVID-19 has accelerated massive shifts in the way we live and work. Nothing seems inevitable or predictable any more.
The recent upheaval in workplaces has made one thing clear. Flexibility and adaptability are vital qualities in your staff. Businesses need teams with the agility to take advantage of the opportunities that are undoubtedly appearing because the potential for rapid growth is enormous.
Take it from me – I’ve scaled two UK businesses from zero revenue to £30 million in just five years. Both were during recessions and relied on high performing teams with the versatility to transform as we grew.
So why are flexibility and adaptability so important?
Say you’re a high growth business, growing at a rate of 20% year on year. Your org chart is going to look very different at the end of three years. It’s so important to have a clear plan of what your revenue is going to be, how it’s made up and who will be needed to service it. How many people in what roles? Maybe you’ll need a whole new layer of management. Forecasting a future org chart for Rackspace was invaluable for our forward visibility. We worked out where the gaps were going to be, enabling us to have essential conversations with existing team members and plan for future recruitment.
Whether you like it or not, as your start-up scales, you will inevitably move away from a happy band of multi-hat-wearing founders. Functions will start to emerge. As you grow larger, these will become ever more specialised. Sales and Marketing will separate, Technical Account Managers will be different from Technical Support and Recruitment will separate from Learning Development. And you might end up with people running parts of the business without the functional expertise that’s needed.
It can be hard work if every person in your business hasn’t been to where you’re going. It’s not impossible. You can have talented people that mature and develop fast, or have the curiosity to learn what they need to know. But you’re likely to hire people into specialist roles who’ve done this work before. And this can be hard for existing staff members to accept.
Adaptability isn’t about willingness or choice. Sometimes it comes down to whether people have or haven’t got the skill that’s needed. I was talking to a client recently whose business has grown nine-fold since I started working with them. The speed of change is staggering. He has some key people and needs to be straight with them. The role they do now is radically different from the part they’re going to be playing at the end of next year. He wants to help them understand what that looks like. And what they need to stop and start doing. Otherwise, he’ll have to bring new people in with the right experience. As CEO, you hope that your best people come through, but you can’t wait if they don’t. This is tough. Suddenly, these people are no longer your best people.
As you go up a league, it may not be right for specific staff to move upwards. Maybe it’s not what they want. It’s easy for egos to get in the way here because they feel they have to ride this wave. Admitting to yourself and others that you’re failing is difficult. So is asking for help. Perhaps they aren’t naturally curious and are unwilling to put in the work to learn and grow. You should know this now rather than further down the line. And you make the tough decisions necessary.
Someone who immediately springs to mind is a guy I worked with when I was MD of Peer 1 in Southampton – Jason Vigus. He worked in so many different areas that he earned the nickname ‘The English Swiss-Army knife’. Whenever there was a problem, he’d flick open another skill or willingly work in a different area. I often joked with him that he wasn’t allowed to have more than six job titles!
Jason was a fantastic all-rounder. I remember when he was running the global service desk. There was a problem around billing and collections, so he stopped what he was doing and volunteered to take a job in Finance to fix it. What a guy! Because he has an unstoppable curiosity and willingness to learn, he was happy to throw himself in at the deep end as he knew it could be useful to his future. It was. He’s now highly regarded in a global role working for one of my clients.
There’s a powerful analogy with sports teams here. People get injured or are away for whatever reason, so it’s vital that other players can step up and cover for them. Similarly, as businesses grow, there might be a gap for six months which needs to be filled by an existing team member. This can be hard as often it’s your best people that will cover, and this will mean they’re not winning. They’re taking one for the team which can be gruelling as they’re not achieving at their usual level. Company performance may dip. In the end, they probably won’t get the job and will be exhausted.
I had a call from a CEO prospect last week. He told me his leadership team has 13 people. Yes, that’s right – 13! I asked him, ‘Why so many?’ He confessed that he hadn’t felt able to tell people that the business had outgrown them. This is what happens – I’ve seen it time and again. His company has expanded 100% year on year for several years. He’s gone from a small team to nearly 300 staff. And some people had played more significant roles in the past who were still on the leadership team. One of his first tasks is getting the leadership group down to 7 or 8.
This is where it comes back to being a good leader of a business with solid core values and a clear BHAG. You want everyone to feel they’re on a mission – working through something difficult together with people they know, like and trust. If you have this in place, it’s more likely for your team to see that the needs of the business are more important. Whilst it might be personally disappointing that they’re being asked to do a role with less prestige, they’re doing it for the good of the business.
This happens all the time in team sports. By the time a football team emerges into the premier league, it’s often a different team with a new manager and different backroom staff – everything has changed.
Let’s imagine that your business grows from £2m to £4m to £8m to £16m over a relatively short period. That’s huge. Scaling to that degree at speed is going to require flexibility at the very highest level. If private equity gets involved, you as CEO might likely be asked to play a different role. Maybe you’re a great visionary. You might be the right person to run product development but not the organisation. So you need to be prepared to hire an excellent right-hand person as a COO.
Learn from my experience. This was how I fell out with Rackspace – I’m not ashamed to admit it. It was suggested to me that my Ops Director wasn’t senior enough and I needed a COO. ‘Get someone in to run the UK so that you can go off and do your best visionary stuff across Europe’, they said. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant or how to go about it. So I didn’t do it, and we eventually parted company.
It’s not unusual to go through something like this – in fact, I often see parallels in the CEOs I meet. They’re failing in one area of the business and, if they’re owned by private equity or VCs, they will tire of that quite quickly. So there needs to be a level of adaptability to acknowledge what you’re going to do and how you re-jig the team.
This comes down to psychological safety. Sometimes it’s important to be vulnerable and admit mistakes. There also needs to be a level of humility. It’s hard for everyone when you’re in completely uncharted territory. It may not feel like personal development. You’re doing things you don’t know very well and flexing your style to manage a team that doesn’t look and feel like you. Ultimately, you’re doing it for the greater good of the organisation.
Whether you’re CEO or the manager of a team, the thing that will always undermine you is hiring good people quickly enough. Sometimes, you might be hiring a person who’s better than you. If you want to elevate yourself, you’re going to need someone to take over your job. And that job may be one that you love. People are often nervous and slow to do this. It’s hard to let go and even harder to let go to someone good. But it’s essential – both to your growth and also the growth of your business.
Dominic has spent 14 years working in sales, marketing and business management within the IT sector. He has held executive positions at Peer 1 Hosting, IT Lab and Rackspace. At Peer 1 he built the UK business to £30m run rate in 5 years. He won many awards for creating a great place to work. At Rackspace Dominic built the UK company from four to 150 staff, and increased annual revenues from £595,000 to £25 million in just four years. Under his management, Rackspace was recognised as one of the most outstanding workplaces in Europe, and won several service awards for its Fanatical Support TM. Dominic has a BSc in Agricultural and Food Marketing from Newcastle and a MBA from Sheffield Business School. Dominic is also a regular public speaker on creating great places to work and achieving continuous client satisfaction and an assessor on the Sunday Times Customer Experience Awards.