So you're riding a rocket...
Tips for surviving a unique career challenge--and opportunity
Being a part of a high-growth company sounds glamorous. Customers are lining up for your product, friends are congratulating you, and the future looks bright. But look under the hood of any rocket ship company and you’ll see that a lot of things are barely holding together. Those just-won clients demand more than you can give them, cracks in your product are exposed as gaping holes, and 80 hour work weeks are common and seem unending.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had a couple of conversations with people who are working at companies that are in the middle of tremendous growth pains. These friends are in positions ranging from entry level to team leads to CEO. When I hear them share the challenges and pain that high-growth is creating I nod with recognition. I’ve been there, done that a couple of times. Since a key reason I’m writing here is to “scale” my experience for the benefit of more than good friends, here’s my advice for those who choose this path.
War is Hell
There’s a reason startups tend to use words like “Wartime CEO” and “Blitzscaling”. That’s because it can feel like you’re in a fight for your life to establish your company’s very existence. Co-workers are stressed, pressures come from all directions, and plans don’t survive for very long.
The first step lies in taking advice from one of the most successful war-fighters of all time, Winston Churchill: “When you’re going through hell, keep going…That is no place to stop!”
This quote has two meanings. First, it speaks to the mentality of constant forward motion that is required to get through the pain. Any decision is better than waiting longer to decide. You’ve got to put out the fires that are most pressing, and constantly focus on the 20% of tasks that will drive the 80% of results. Note that this can mean choosing to let some fires burn or clients complain while you take a day to build a process that makes everything going forward a lot more efficient.
It also means you’ve got to have people around you that are able to fight on independently. You’re paying them for a reason, so give them some guardrails, some tools, and throw them into the fray. You don’t have much time to train people—they either rise to the challenge and get it, or you need to find someone who can. However you owe it to new hires to warn them of the challenges ahead. Why wait until their onboarding day to tell them the reality that you’re in a shit storm right now but great things await if they can step up?
The second meaning of Churchill’s quote is that you will make it through, one way or another. The crazy pressure you are feeling right now will not be there forever. Either your company will make it out in the months ahead, or it won’t. As a rule in life, pain is temporary.
Make Sure You’re Ready
Take a step back and make sure that you and your support team is ready for the flight/fight ahead. Not everyone should seek a job in a crazy high-growth company, and not at every stage in one’s life.
I’ve hired plenty of smart, successful people who thought working at a startup would be fun…until they met reality. There’s little structure, broken process (if any), and an expectation that you will do whatever it takes—whenever it needs to take place. But they are used to an existing process—and product! I find that the farther along someone is in their careers at traditional companies, the harder it is for them to make the move. That’s why I love hiring people with startup experience—or folks right out of college or making a career shift, since they don’t know the difference, or are really ready to start fresh, respectively.
It’s also key to make sure that your family understand the journey that you’re signing up for. Your spouse should accept that this is not going to be an ordinary job for some time, and he or she should have a veto vote. There should be real and potential financial payoffs that beat out a more traditional job. You may have to make new arrangements in childcare and household chores. It might not be the best time to move into a new home, train for a marathon, start a side gig, or take MBA classes at night. For some period, work will get the balance of your time. So make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs in your personal+family equation.
Lead by Example
Special coaching is needed for the leaders of high-growth companies. All eyes are on you, and your team takes its cue from you. It’s not just that you’re at the top of the pyramid and making decisions that impact their work. If you are having a bad day, they have a bad day. If you’re absent, they wonder why they are working so hard when you’re not.
When business is booming and employees are stressed with growth, a great leader first works to solve the problems. She jumps into gaps and gets hands-on—say, taking the customer calls, doing the manual data entry, going through new hire applications, or reporting bugs in the software. In part this adds a few hours of help, but the benefit is that your team sees that you care and that you’re not above getting your hands dirty alongside them.
When you’re not doing the work, your job is to be the inspiring coach. Motivational speeches are a thing because they work. So does buying beer and pizza for every possible excuse. Walk the halls with a smile and stay active on the virtual halls of Slack and Zoom. Thank your people for their hard work and continuously remind them that today’s pain is a step toward something bigger.
Finally, it is your responsibility to focus on making sure your executive team is in sync. I’ve learned the hard way that when co-founders are not happy with each other, the company starts taking sides and spends precious time processing conflicting directions. If you feel something is wrong in a relationship, you must dig in and settle it with hard conversations, coaching, or someone’s departure.
Benefits Come to Those Who Answer the Call
Very, very few people get to experience the highs and lows of a high-growth company. Like a rocket, few people get a ticket and the ride is relatively short. High-growth eventually burns out, and your company will either reach orbit or crash back down to earth.
But you will never forget the ride—and you will accelerate your personal growth on every measure. You will have tested yourself and built lifetime relationships with fellow flyers who experienced these magic moments with you.
And maybe it’s a trick of your brain, but even if things with your company don’t work out well, you’ll look back on these crazy high-growth times fondly. You might even realize that what didn’t kill you made you stronger, and join us for another ride…