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Rapid expansion is both a gift and a challenge.

Here’s what to do if your business is growing faster than you can handle it – and the risks if you don’t manage it properly.

Rapid expansion is the best kind of challenge for a growing business to have – but make no mistake, it is a challenge. Every business aims for success, and most measure this by their growth – however, there are healthy and unhealthy ways for businesses to expand. The thrill of high-profit margins, new staff members and the excitement of a rapidly expanding business can be exhilarating, but, if not properly managed, can lead to a business plateauing or, worst of all, failing – it’s no wonder that most leaders have mixed feelings about their business’s growth spurts. As Forbes describes, “Maintaining your high level of service and overall customer experience becomes harder to do as your company quickly grows.”  

Healthy growth – fundamentally different from rapid expansion – is when an organisation has seen some profits and its operation remains stable. Healthy growth feels good and doesn’t disrupt the status quo, and certainly gives a leader those positive winning feelings. Compared to this, rapid expansion might feel good temporarily, but it disrupts the status quo and it requires change on multiple fields including things like premises, systems, reporting, customer relationship management, cash flow, staffing, organisational structure and more.

Rapid growth can happen for two main reasons:

  1. There’s been a well-executed growth strategy. Businesses that wanted to grow have executed their strategy so well that they’re actually finding themselves growing more rapidly than anticipated.
  2. The business is faced with unexpected opportunities that force expansion earlier than expected.

It’s important to understand why your growth is happening, and to keep your sights on the core purpose and value adds of your business. One thing we know for sure: when rapid growth occurs there is a strong possibility that what got you to this point, isn’t going to get you to the future you’re aiming for and you’ll need to make some major changes.

Rapid expansion is a defining moment in an organisation’s history, and there are definitive guidelines that leaders need to be acutely aware of as they ride this wave.

Here are some key principles for managing rapid expansion:

Prepare for a period of intensity: 

During rapid expansion, business as unusual is going to prevail, meaning there’s going to be a time of intensity ahead. Business leaders often underestimate this and don’t plan for it appropriately. Compared to when your business is in a structured routine, during rapid expansion things come at you and your team at a much faster pace. Chances are you’ll need to make quick decisions that could have consequences you’re not even aware of. For example, hiring a lot of people quickly could mean turning an excellent “doer” into a manager. This might not be the best use of their skills and could lead to poor team performance overall. Decisions you once made informally now have to be formalised, so they can be implemented across the business more easily. Working with external guidance can help you make these decisions with all the potential consequences in mind.

It’s also important, to be honest with yourself around what you’re going to need from your support structures, including your family and your colleagues. Support during this time is vital to ensure your own well-being is taken care of so your business can thrive without leading to your own burnout.

Be Clear: 

It’s important to note that giving clear direction to your team and business is absolutely necessary, even though this can feel contradictory in this uncertain period. The biggest danger with this kind of expansion is that things can unravel quickly and misconceptions, misinformation and confusion amongst your team are more likely. Also, remember that clarity can come in all forms and the fact that your organisation or your team is in a phase of rapid expansion is in itself useful to repeat. Tell your people that you are in this phase, that you don’t know all the answers, and that you are going to be as clear as you can.

Regular and short contact points:

Communicate regularly in short, sharp bursts. Repetition is important and reminding your team where you’re at is helpful when the business feels like it’s on shifting sands. It’s also important to communicate any important information to your team. Don’t feel the need to hold long laborious meetings; rather keep communication regular and short. These quick company-wide meetings can save you a lot of pain in the long run – without the full picture your team might fill the blanks with their own imagination and guesses, inevitably leading to confusion. By communicating frequently, your people will feel reassured that you’re both in charge and open to sharing what is happening in the business.

Future goals: 

Another really good strategy is to look at the challenge that your business is facing from the place of the future. Consider what you want your business to look like and then work back to what is needed today and what is going to be helpful for you right here and now. In other words, break down this huge challenge into small bite-size chunks rather than seeing it as a monumental challenge and allowing chaos to reign. It’s also a good idea to use weekly plans as opposed to quarterly plans – just take your company week by week and before you know it, you’ll be moving back to monthly and then quarterly cycles.

Gain perspective: 

We also advise leaders and teams to step away from the business now and then to gain perspective. Again, this may feel counterintuitive during a time that is so busy but it’s absolutely necessary. As a leader, you’re responsible for your entire business and it’s tough to see the whole picture if you’re involved in all the minutiae. Give yourself some headspace in order to gain some perspective. Meeting regularly with your coach or mentor will be exceptionally useful as they will be important providers of perspective for you. Keep in mind as well that making time to do things you love is important for your mental health – which is crucial for a leader guiding a business through stormy seas.

Be aware of your blind spots: 

This is also a time when you as a leader are going to need to be very aware of and work with your blind spots – those unknown aspects of your personality that influence our behaviour and perspective more than we realise. When we’re in these stressful periods, our blind spots can really come in and surprise us. Listen to the feedback you’re getting and monitor yourself to have some idea of your triggers and reactions.  Again, this is where a good coach or mentor can offer a valuable perspective on how you might influence the business in ways you aren’t aware of. Don’t wish your blind spots away, learn to work with them, because when the pressure is on, they will rear their head regardless.

Rapid expansion can be a huge opportunity, especially if handled correctly. We’re sure this strategic advice will guide your business to a place of greater excellence.

Is your team going through a period of rapid growth or expansion? Contact Anne anne@lockstep.co.za, our subject matter expert, to chat about your experiences so far and if you have any questions.

If you like to read more insights from Anne, download the Executive Teams Report.

Anne Hartslief

Anne Hartslief

Anne Hartslief is the Managing Director at Lockstep and leads the Gold Standard Executive Team programme.  Anne brings operational experience, business performance and an understanding of human behaviour to her role at Lockstep.  She believes that high-performing cohesive Executive leadership teams spread influence throughout the organisation, acting as a powerful point of leverage for success.

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