If you have the ambition to grow personally or in business, you’ll experience growing pains. But the secret to success is learning to embrace them, rather than seeing them as an insurmountable hurdle.
Every person and business that takes themselves seriously talks about growth. This is not just growth in terms of revenue, team size or sales figures, but growth from where you are now (point A) to where you want to be in the future (point B), with the ambition of fulfilling a vision. This internal yearning to succeed, and the commitment to it, however, comes hand-in-hand with growing pains. But, it’s how you deal with these growing pains that will determine the level of the success you achieve.
There’s a simple saying, “If you focus on your goals, your hurdles fall away. If you focus on your hurdles, your goals fall away”. In my work, I see two types of people, those who embrace their growing pains and see them as a necessary step in fulfilling their goals, and those who see them as blockades in the road and never employ the right tactics to overcome them. Your growing pains are simply part of the respectful move from who you were and what you achieved in the past, to who you need to become to achieve your vision in the future. This is not about improving efficiency, this is about transformation. Despite the successes you might be currently seeing, if you never take the leap to move away from the status quo and deliberately progress, you cannot surpass your own limitations and achieve true greatness. By crawling more efficiently, a toddler will not be able to walk.
True growing pains are about taking risks, leading the pack in the transformation, and moving away from the socialized risk-averse culture we have become accustomed to. Below I will walk you through the most common growing pains I see at startup, scale-up and corporate levels. Perhaps you recognize them?
The major growing pain I see in almost all startups is in defining a strong vision-led culture. Transforming from three friends around a kitchen table, who do everything, to a team of thirty in an office is no mean feat, and founding teams have to become accustomed to allowing other opinions in the room, doing things more professionally, taking risks beyond their individual influence, and accepting a diverse work environment. At this stage in business, startups need to move from a homogenous and organic culture created by the founders, friends, and family, to a deliberate culture strategy that is guided by a strong vision. They need to develop a compelling story that attracts new talent who will contribute to the aspired culture as the responsibility level changes and new needs are set in place. However, this doesn’t mean the old culture was wrong. The spirit that founded the company must always remain, but to overcome this growing pain, founders must respectfully move on from that and role model a new and deliberate culture to achieve their long-term goals.
Once startups hit scale-up size, new growing pains emerge. At this stage in the business lifecycle, a distinct need for professionalization emerges. I see scale-ups often go through a ‘mid-life crisis’. They want to become a big company, but they don’t want to be a big company. They often struggle to give up the culture of the start-up they used to be. This is where the leadership team should step up and role model the transformation needed as the company progresses into the next phase. Professionalization at this stage might come in the form of processes, team structures, or specialist hiring. The founders need to make a decision about whether they are the company or they serve the company. Only the latter will succeed, as this allows for the acceptance that they might not be able to lead the team and company into the next stage themselves, and rather, they need to surround themselves with people who can fill in their knowledge gaps e.g. in legal and finance. Founders who are the company will always limit the growth of the company due to the limits of their individual imagination. Overcoming this growing pain means letting go of the ego and stepping aside to allow true professionalization to develop.
Corporates encounter growing pains in many different forms – as there are also many different definitions for corporates themselves! Fundamentally their growing pains come from the way they implement their route to change, whatever that may be. It’s very common for corporate businesses to talk about growth in terms of optimizing metrics, however, this is often without a higher goal or vision. I find that one of the most common things I support corporates with is in defining the aspired end state, and then how to overcome the growing pains to get there. It’s the tension between point A and point B where corporates often get stuck in a game of bullshit bingo – agile, lean, fast, digital – words that reach boardrooms, and which create assumptions. More often than not, a consultant will be hired and the company is told to follow a new strategy to achieve the vision. However, this is the problem. Successful transformation doesn’t come from external ‘telling’, it comes from an internal, grassroots ambition for change. For true transformation in these large corporate companies, cohorts of ‘front runners’, who are risk-takers and have nothing to lose, must be mobilized first. By showing others that they’re not alone and by creating a safe space, they can generate followers and ultimately make an impact through critical mass. Corporate businesses are not just a ‘one people’ (some have the populations of countries), they require levels of change over a period of time to succeed in achieving their vision. Overcoming this growing pain is about understanding that one size does not fit all.
Growing pains are something that should be embraced with vigor, as a learning experience that gets you one step closer to your ultimate vision. The more genuine and authentic your goal, the easier it is to survive and enjoy your growing pains, turning them into opportunities to learn and to grow as individuals and as an organization. The more distant and obligatory the ‘enforced’ goal is, the more pains you will have without knowing whether they lead to growth or not. The pain will come anyway, so it’s better to truly embrace it!
If you’ve experienced any of these growing pains or have any comments about my thoughts on them, please leave a comment below.