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People and Change

Evolving leadership

Neil Hughes Neil Hughes

As a company grows, from start-up, through initial stages of growth, and hopefully to rapid growth, the role of the leader must also evolve. This is a big ask, and requires a conscious effort on the part of the leader to ask themselves, ‘who does the business need me to be right now’, and then adapt. If a leader has a fixed stance, they could be very successful in one particular phase of growth, and completely unsuitable in another. 

Let’s take a typical start-up. The founder has an idea for a business and may work alone initially, doing everything required to get the business off the ground. They are the face of the company and they work every hour available. They are the company. It’s very personal. They look after all aspects of this newborn entity, and they may dream about longer-term growth, but their focus is day-to-day survival.

Then, with traction, the business starts to grow, and the founder has the luxury of hiring experts to support them. The founder has to shift to leading others and assume the role of delegator and direction setter. There is a danger of holding the business back at this stage if the leader still involves themselves in every decision and continues to have a tight grip of control. Others will want autonomy to do the job they have been hired to do. With success to date, the leader’s gaze can start to shift to longer-term growth, leaving the day-to-day to the team.

With continued success, and probably a few set-backs along the way, the business takes off, and the company experiences more rapid growth. The leader then has to build a team, coach others, plan for the future, and communicate to the growing workforce to make sure everyone is aligned. Trusting the team is essential. The leader will no longer be intimately involved in all areas of the business, and that’s the way it should be. The leader must shift their perspective back to looking at the entire business as a whole, and their outlook should be longer-term. To lead growth, they must spend their time communicating the vision, focus on values, developing strategy, and focus on culture.

You can see why this is a big ask for one individual leader; to successfully play different roles at different stages, shift their perspective, actions and thinking, and stay one step ahead of the phase of growth. Some leaders can’t make the shifts required, and that’s okay as long as they have the self-awareness to know this and then move on when the time comes. Serial entrepreneurs love the thrill of the start-up, and when the business is stable and needs managements structures, they want out and move on to the next startup. But if a leader wants to be at the helm and see their vision realised, they must evolve. As Darwin said, it is not the strongest nor the most intelligent that survives, but those most adaptable to change.