Building Organizational Leadership Capacity

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As you scale your business, you will discover an endless well of ideas and opinions on how, why, and when. The truth of scaling, of course, is there is no one way. While there are patterns and models to consider, your business, your team, your customers, and your timing create a unique set of circumstances that require a unique approach. This means that scaling your business will require your attention, focus, and work…. continuously.

You may be thinking, “but I don’t have time for that! I need to tend to the work at hand, servicing our customers, building leads, solving problems!” You’re right about the value and limit of your capacity – you don’t have time for both.

There is one truth for all scaling businesses: executives need to change their altitude. You are too focused on the day-to-day, too involved in the details of the now. You need to get up off the ground and into the air where you can see your whole business and the market it plays in so that you can continually transform as you scale and compete.

But who will manage the day-to-day? Who will solve the urgent problems? If you don’t have an obvious answer to that question for every function of your business, it’s time to build your organizational leadership capacity. If you do this well, you will ensure the work of today is being handled by a competent and aligned team so you can focus on scaling your business.

Here are three actions you can take to build leadership capacity:

  • Get out of the groundwork that is the day-to-day running of the business so that you can focus on scaling for the future.
  • Find the right leaders for your company to scale.
  • Build leadership capacity by sharing and shifting the work.

Choose your altitude

Without a solid leadership team working through the middle of your business, there is not enough leadership capacity to allow you to manage the daily details AND focus on the future. You can either inspect the details of your organization from the ground or you can see the whole of your business from the air – and if you need to scale, you are going to have to see the whole. 
You and the rest of the executive team are spending too much time working IN the business vs. ON the business. 

  • IN the business work is delivering on existing commitments and revenue, solving today’s problems today, working at the ground level
  • ON the business work is transformative and strategic. It is what will let you become the company you need to be tomorrow. It’s in-the-air work

You can either inject yourself into the contracting process to resolve each disagreement with your prospects’ lawyers, or you can focus on improving your post-sales process holistically from deal to implementation to customer growth and engagement. The lure of getting into the details is strong – it's that kind of boots-on-the-ground leadership that got you where you are today! But as the organization grows, your involvement in every decision will become a bottleneck, slowing down every action and filling your calendar from morning until night. And the problem of your involvement in every decision will compound with every new hire you make. Growth will become your personal enemy.

In order to scale, you need to see your business from the air, and in order to do that, you need a leadership team you can trust and empower to manage the work on the ground.

Finding leaders

So, what to do? You need to find great leaders and enable them. Finding them requires that you understand your context. What is the planned scale of your business in the next year? What is your strategic motion? Where is your market heading? You won’t likely find the perfect leader in all areas, but you want to determine the value of:

  • Hiring for scale (e.g., someone to grow a team from 50 – 200 will serve your StartUp or ScaleUp better than someone who has led a 5,000-person team).
  • Hiring for your strategic motion (e.g., someone who can find and ensure product-market-fit will serve you better than someone who has led a multi-product portfolio).
  • Hiring for market understanding (e.g., someone who understands your TAM and has experience with StartUp and ScaleUp GTM motions will be more focused than someone who has experience with multi-market exploration across many products). 

Once the value of hiring to your context is clear, you need to clarify the role and responsibilities of your leaders and decide where to look – explore external candidates or promote from within. As you scale, you want to be clear about expectations on growth opportunities. Internally promoted leaders may be used to a rapid rise from your startup days. They may reject being promoted into a middle management role that eventually will become even more specialized versus leading to a broader set of responsibilities. External hires may relish the opportunity to “stretch” into a role and responsibility level they haven’t had access to before. You also want to ensure you align the role to your culture (defined as “the way we do things around here”). Fitting in to the culture is generally easier for internal folks than external hires. Everything is a give-and-take, so you want to be thoughtful about your approach.

Sharing and shifting responsibility 

As you get the right people into the right roles, you can start building on your practices and processes for turning strategy into execution. It’s likely that the executive team has played a big role in this process – from defining strategy to ensuring it is communicated to teams, that execution plans are built, and tracking results and learnings. It’s at the point of execution that executives often get pulled back into the details and lose sight of the bigger picture. Sharing responsibility for connecting strategy to execution and shifting responsibility for executing and tracking the results can help you and your executive team stay focused on the future.

The key to making this sharing and shifting work is paying attention to decision-making frameworks and information flow. Leaders in the middle of your organization can’t take on owning the decisions around execution if they don’t have clarity on intent and boundaries. Your job as executives is to:

  • Design clear and compelling strategies that align with your vision and values.
  • Establish clear guardrails within the business (financial, operational, technological, etc.) that can help guide decision-making without hindering it.

You can remain on the escalation path for exceptions or system-level decisions, but you need to be able to trust that your middle management team has the clarity of intent and boundaries necessary to move quickly and decisively to get the work done.

Trusting that the work is aligned and in motion is also enabled by high transparency within the business. You will feel more confident if you can quickly look to the right data, dashboards, or leaders to help you know what is going on in any part of the business. And the leaders on the ground can feel more confident if they know you are paying attention to their results and that they are regularly receiving feedback and steering. Developing your organizational competencies in measuring, monitoring, and feedback loops is a foundational practice for scaling your business and growing leaders.

Your choice

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide in what ways and to what extent you want to remain integrated into the “ground work” of running your business vs. the “air work” of leading your organization to its next stage. One of the most powerful choices you can make is to actively step back. If you want your leadership teams to step up, you need to get out of their way.

If growth has become your personal enemy and you’re ready to build leadership capacity in your organization, consider creating an executive team goal around this work. Engaging the whole executive team in developing leaders will ensure you are building an aligned leadership team and supporting practices instead of spot solutions by the department. As you grow leadership capacity in the business, the executive team can start stepping back together and refocusing on your next scaling challenges and opportunities

It's Time for a Frank Conversation About Leadership

  • Rachel Weston Rowell, Product Advisor

    Rachel is an engaging leader who champions the development and growth of people and organizations by shining a light on opportunities in ways that motivate and inspire. Her passion lies in helping organizations transform so that they can not only survive but so that they can shine in their market. She coaches executives and leaders on developing…