In the past two years, my firm has acquired three smaller ones, doubled its headcount, and expanded into areas I never dreamed possible when we founded the organization. While it may be a good problem to have, managing such rapid growth isn't easy. Recently I spoke with the founders of two other businesses that have experienced similar trajectories; through our combined experiences I've identified five tips you need to make sure the changes happening to your company go as smoothly as they can.
1. Educate and empower employees.
Early in my career, I was an employee at two firms that were acquired by larger ones. In each instance, the acquiring firm's management treated us like republics in the former Soviet Union. They erased senior managers, and adopted an "our way or the highway" policy in terms of systems, processes, and culture.
We've done the exact opposite as we've absorbed other cultures. Ted Birkhahn, our agency president, says he listened long and hard to what the smaller firms did well and, when appropriate, replaced our existing methodology with theirs. We've stressed to all 120 employees that the best idea will always win.
Alex Tonelli is the co-founder of Funding Circle, a platform that matches investors with small business owners. His firm has grown from 14 to 45 people in the past three months. Tonelli asks new employees to read two books: Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies and Shackleton's Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Arctic Explorer. The former pinpoints best practices for building and upgrading a business model over time. The latter provides tips for the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that confront every business. Both educate newbies on the qualities and aspirations that determine success. "We put people first, and strategy second," says Tonelli. "Great people are critical to developing a great strategy."
Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder of Indagare Travel, a high-end travel company, has seen her sales double every year, and gives full credit to her staff. She celebrates year-end success by reviewing milestones and sharing client quotes extolling the attributes of various employees. "Our people have been critical to our successful growth," she says. "In fact, I count on our current staff to recommend peers who share their qualities. You can teach someone the business, but you cannot teach someone to be kind to clients." Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business, which provides restaurateur Danny Meyer's inside tips, is required reading at Indagare.
2. Spread company knowledge around.
Eighteen years ago, we focused on one service offering: public relations. Today, we offer a "channel-neutral" suite of marketing services ranging from Web design and social media to content creation and crisis counseling. But a greatly expanded set of products or services can be both a blessing and a curse. It's critical that employees understand the new offerings, and can correctly communicate them to clients and prospects alike.
To ensure consistency, we've begun mixing and matching our newly integrated senior management teams in internal training sessions, and videotaping their mock business presentations. It's forcing us to embrace and communicate our new identity.
Biggs Bradley embraces a "hive mind" mentality. It's her belief that collective intelligence provides the best client experience. Her employees collaborate on solutions and advice. So if one employee needs the latest advice on a five-star experience in Milan, another Indagare staffer who's just returned from there will provide a download. As a result, each client gets the benefit of the entire organization's wisdom (like many bees working to produce the honey). Indagare also holds periodic teach-ins whenever a team member returns from a new destination. These ensure the entire staff has real-time, first-person information on the destination's restaurants, hotels, and local culture.
3. Give credit where credit is due.
Funding Circle and Peppercomm both have an employee Wall of Fame. In the former's case, employees are asked on a weekly basis to name one world figure, past or present, who best embodies their firm's spirit. Legendary figures such as John F. Kennedy and Babe Ruth adorn the wall (see below), along with the name of a Funding Circle employee who's distinguished himself or herself that particular week. In our case, we post a photo of an employee who's achieved the most significant client result of the past two weeks. In both companies, leadership is shining the spotlight on those individuals who are excelling in times of high stress and extraordinary change.
4. Set and manage client expectations.
Maintaining quality on the fly can be akin to a tightwire crossing of the Grand Canyon. Any number of things can, and will, go wrong. The first thing we did after the acquisitions was to check in with their clients to find out if they had questions or concerns. Most were satisfied, but a few expressed some degree of uncertainty. By addressing the potential problems early on, we were able to provide solutions.
Funding Circle's Tonelli says he and his co-managers insist upon delivering quality service during periods of rapid growth and will "call one another out if we spot something that just doesn't meet high expectations." So if one executive spots a report that isn't as detailed it should be, it'll undergo another round of editing before seeing the light of day.
We do the same at my firm. A team of editors will rigorously check everything from press releases and white papers to website content and the functionality of an iPhone app before it's shared with clients.
5. Reinforce the founding principle.
While we're always open to learning new and better ways of solving client challenges, we are also like junkyard dogs when it comes to protecting our unique culture. Peppercomm was founded on the principle of work hard, play hard, and flourished after we embedded stand-up comedy training in our management development.
We train every employee (and some clients) in the art and science of stand-up comedy for multiple reasons: It improves presentation skills, builds a tighter bond between employees, and encourages transparency, vulnerability, and learning from one's mistakes. So the very first thing we did for our newly merged comrades was to send them to the New York Comedy Club for half a day of stand-up training.
Managing rapid growth isn't for the faint of heart. But leaders who remain true to their core values while embracing change and rewarding their best and brightest will win out in the end.