What They Don't Tell You About Leading a Fast-Growing Company

As told by Influence & Co.'s founder, John Hall:

"As an entrepreneur leading a fast-growing company, I've learned a few things that I know other entrepreneurs will relate to -- whether they admit to the struggles or not -- and that aspiring entrepreneurs should take as a warning.

My team and I recently announced that we made the Inc. 500, and it's an honor to be recognized among such a variety of fast-growing companies. But during our internal celebration, I also reflected on some of the unexpected challenges we had overcome.

Everyone loves sharing successes and positive outcomes, but we tend to keep quiet about the parts that aren't so great -- and that can be very misleading.

I noticed something similar when a few friends had problems conceiving children. I'd never really heard anyone in my life share their struggles with conception, and I was under the impression that it was fairly easy to conceive. But after so many people in your life start sharing with you the problems they're having, you start to see the whole truth. Because no one wants to share the parts that aren't so great, we sometimes don't even realize they happen.

Coming to that realization can make you feel embarrassed or leave you with a bruised ego, and it can screw up your perception of success. As an entrepreneur leading a fast-growing company, I've learned a few things that I know other entrepreneurs will relate to -- whether they admit to the struggles or not -- and that aspiring entrepreneurs should take as a warning:

1. Hustling is vital, but it can be destructive.

Balance is necessary with anything you do in life. But when you're building a company, it's easy to think you'll fall behind if you don't keep your foot on the gas at all times. I remember traveling from event to event, city to city, without any breaks or chances to catch my breath. As social and friendly as I try to be, I still spent a lot of lonely nights stuck in a hotel room, missing my family and my own bed.

After doing this for a few years, I realized it wasn't enjoyable and a better balance had to exist. Now I schedule plenty of downtime between trips so I can spend quality time with family and friends to remember why I'm working my butt off in the first place.

2. More staff, more problems.

Influence & Co. has grown to a staff of more than 120 full-time, part-time, and contracted employees, and I feel incredibly lucky to have the team we do. But a bigger staff brings many different personalities, motivations, etc. My co-founder, Kelsey, and I want people to be happy, but we also know it can't just be green pastures and frolicking through the fields together.

We want everyone to work hard, be respectful, and, most important, feel challenged by the work they do. Fully challenging our team members to grow takes some difficult conversations and uncomfortable situations. And the bigger the team, the greater the potential for those staff problems.

Growing quickly is challenging, but as you evolve into the company you know you can be, the payoff is extremely rewarding. The following two reminders have helped me through our growth so far:

  • You can't make everybody happy, but you should always do what you think is best for the company.
  • Embrace training and education, and reward staff members who set good examples of what it means to be a high performer.

3. You can end up with a bigger target on your back.

When you're growing a successful company, you'll always encounter people who like to hate. Criticism is inevitable, and jealousy is natural. As a young entrepreneur, I was completely guilty of indulging in this more than I should have, and I realize others still do.

About three years ago, I heard someone we had to let go say that Influence & Co. didn't have what it'd take to sustain our growth -- basically that we were just a quick success and bound to fail. I'm glad we've proved that person wrong, but negativity like that can really get to you as the haters start hating.

No matter what you do or how you can perform, cases like this will occur. They used to piss me off and make me stressed, but now I just do my best to listen and remain open to feedback. If it's constructive, then I pass it on to the right person and work to improve. If it's not, I just listen and thank the person for his or her feedback.

4. You evolve from a family to a team.

At the beginning, our company was a little family. Our first five employees who really went through the trenches together were incredibly close: One was the best friend of my wife and me, and another was a family friend of Kelsey's. In the early stages, a certain closeness exists and creates a family environment, but that can't last as you grow quickly.

You don't fire family for underperformance. (If you could, I'm sure some people would consider firing their families' black sheep.) So you have to evolve the culture from a family and highly personal environment to more of a respectful and team-oriented structure.

The new culture can still be friendly: We all still respect one another and share good times at Influence & Co.; don't get me wrong. But it's important to grow a high-performance culture, and looking at every employee as a family member can be a barrier to that. This shift is difficult to lead because those existing relationships have to evolve, too, and that involves conversations around resetting expectations.

5. Your employees (and their families) depend on you.

A friend of mine with a small, five-person company once sent me pictures of them all surfing during the day and relaxing together on the beach. In that moment, I was a little jealous, but after that faded, I realized I enjoy having a big team.

I love employing this growing team and providing a good place to work, but a level of stress comes with that. These are real people with real families, and they're all relying on you to lead this company to the best of your ability.

It's easy to get caught up in your company's growth and success while everything is going well, but what if things take a wrong turn? I've spent quite a few nights lying awake in bed and worrying about something devastating the company and causing layoffs.

Gradually, I've learned that constantly worrying isn't an effective use of my time: It's distracting and stressful. Advisers in my life have said to focus on building a strong company and limiting risk; if something out of my control happens, I need to feel good about the decisions I've made to grow and protect the company. I see this worry affect a lot of leaders, but as you gain mental strength, it becomes less of a distraction.

Regardless of whether you like to admit to the struggles that accompany success, they will always be there. If you're leading a growing company or thinking about starting one, remember that it comes with its share of challenges -- but, I'd say, it's all worth it."

John Hall, "Mo' Growth Mo' Problems: What They Don't Tell You About Leading a Fast-Growing Company" Inc Magazine, August 28, 2016. Accessed via: http://www.inc.com/john-hall/mo-growth-mo-problems-what-they-dont-tell-you-about-leading-a-fast-growing-compa.html

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