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The Incredibly Dull, Yet Powerful Secret to Scalability

It has to do with teams and your leadership. Here's what you need to know.
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In over 30 years of working with organizations of every shape and size, I've become convinced of one thing more than anything else: there is a dirty little secret of attaining scalability, and it's not only not very complicated, it's downright prosaic.

The secret? Effective team-based decision-making. There--I warned you it was dull, right? Dull, but immensely powerful.

To see why this seemingly innocuous skill--the ability of a group of people to get together and come up with effective, implementable decisions--is so powerful, consider the arc of leadership in most organizations:

Phase 1: Heroic Leadership
For any business to get off the ground and out of the highly dangerous Early Struggle phase of growth, heroic actions are required. In fact, given the high mortality rate of new ventures (around 80 percent), the very act of starting a business is in itself heroic.

During the next, Fun stage, the heroic model of leadership is what fuels the young business's growth: regularly stealing victory from the jaws of defeat, the plucky, flexible, evangelistic, energetic leadership power the organization past bigger competitors, delighting customers and engaging employees in a fun, almost hyperactive environment.

All well and good, until it isn't. The problem is that heroic leadership isn't scalable.

Phase 2: Synergistic Leadership
For those leaders who see the need to move on from heroic leadership (and who have the discipline and commitment to do so--after all, heroic leadership is very gratifying to the ego), the second phase is much less exciting, but, for a complex, growing business, much more effective: consistently making high-quality decisions as a team. (Which, by the way, is not the same as needing, or achieving, consensus.)

For those executive teams who master this transition from heroic to synergistic leadership, anything is possible. For those who don't, their business is doomed to limited, albeit hyperactive growth.

Phase 3: Protective Leadership
In theory, with synergistic leadership, any executive team can continue scaling their business to whatever level their industry will allow (and even further, by redefining their industry).

In reality, most often synergistic leadership slowly ossifies, and over time leaders become protective--of their core function, their resources, their status, their past results, their team, their data. Debate becomes brittle, decisions become bureaucratic and execution becomes arthritic. And thus begins the decline of the formerly growth-oriented organization.

So here's my question for you: How is your business growing?

Is it as a result of the key executive team making vibrant, data-rich decisions?

Or is it by you and few others pulling off extraordinary, heroic feats?

Or worse, are you eking out marginal, incremental growth from a group of protective leaders?

The difference is the dirty little secret of scalability.

Discover how to maximize your organization's growth. Download a free chapter from the author's book, "The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success" which provides a comprehensive model for developing yourself or others as an exceptional, world class leader.

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: Feb 25, 2014

LES MCKEOWN | Columnist

Les McKeown is the president and CEO of Predictable Success, a leading adviser on accelerated business growth. He has started more than 40 companies and was the founding partner of an incubation consulting company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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