Silicon Valley has its successes, but is rampant with many more failures. You know the story. A tech startup with tons of promise gets funding, grows like gangbusters, and then promptly and epically collapses. Often, it's due to poor management by the CEO/Founder. These entrepreneurs may have had great products, but they lacked the ability to manage surging growth. Truly great leaders see through the chaos of rapid expansion and change.
Even an impeccable educational pedigree - Harvard and Wharton - could not fully prepare member Luvleen Sidhu for the demands of being the CEO during astronomical growth. Inspired by her own bad experiences with traditional banks, Sidhu began BankMobile in her living room as the country's first fee-free, all-digital bank. She aspired to attract 25,000 customers in the first year, and met her target fourfold!
It's only been three years since the launch of BankMobile, yet, now with hundreds of employees, Sidhu has already made it the largest, fastest-growing digital bank in the industry, generating $75 million in annual revenues and opening 350,000 accounts per year. This kind of dramatic growth is a dream come true for many entrepreneurs, but it comes with its own set of unique challenges for the CEO. Sidhu is proving herself more than competent. Here is her advice to navigate your company through the storm of growth:
1. Go Within and Sit Still
Being a CEO is hard enough when the company is well-established and stable. When a business is experiencing rapid growth, the job is even more difficult, and the CEO has to find a way to maintain balance in life and in work. "With the many things that are thrown my way on a daily basis, my meditation and chanting routine help me stay focused in order to make the best decisions. It's a chance to really align with my goals and what resonates with my heart personally and professionally," says Sidhu. CEOs need to be grateful for the present moment and the opportunities that come, however pressure-packed. A centered, calm CEO makes rational decisions, not emotional ones that can slow growth as quickly as it started.
2. Master Your Internal and External Environments
When a business experiences growth as rapidly as BankMobile, it is often a disruptor in an existing industry. It is important for disruptor companies to keep their disruptor attitude. Sidhu recalls the words of Peter Diamandis: "You must disrupt yourself, or someone else will." Sidhu is highly aware of her own industry. "On almost a daily basis, I assess what our strengths are, what makes us different from other fintech companies, and how to use these differences to create exponential growth. I also assess what threats currently exist in the marketplace and how to mitigate those risks." Make sure you are constantly challenging yourself and the norms of your industry, because the business environment is fiercely competitive. You weren't the first disruptor, and you certainly won't be the last.
3. Find the Right People to Lead
Every leader needs a strong team for support, particularly in times of change. "Creating and implementing strategy starts at the top," explains Sidhu. "If management isn't fully committed to our plan of action, it will be almost impossible for them to share the company's vision with their teams." Sidhu is particularly a fan of Jim Collin's best-selling book Good to Great, which advises "getting the right people on the bus in the right seats." Having management buy-in from the very beginning on the vision for the company is a critical part of success. If there isn't a process to find the right people before rapid growth, it will be nearly impossible to implement during the chaos of growth.
4. Create the Right Company Culture
Success also requires the right culture at every level of the company. Sidhu warns, "If employees don't feel empowered or motivated at work, that will bleed into the type of products and services we produce and how we interact with our customers." The solution, she says, is creating a culture that is "empowering, inclusive, and transparent." Culture rot can quickly ruin a company, even one with good people and good products. And in a company where growth is rapid, culture rot can spread twice as fast.
5. Be Willing to Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn
When entrepreneurs meet with success, they can become isolated and set in their ways. Sidhu warns against complacency and over-confidence. "In many instances, my obstacles came by way of something that I thought I already knew. Never believe that you know it all. Change happens rapidly and constantly, so staying open to learning, unlearning, and re-learning is an important part of leadership." With the right attitude, failure becomes an opportunity for betterment. Avoid clinging to your own preconceived notions or to how it's usually done. This adaptability is particularly important when your company is growing fast.
6. Keep the Team Focused on the Big Picture
Sidhu likes to invoke Friedrich Nietzsche on the importance of focus: "The most basic form of human stupidity is forgetting what we are trying to accomplish." The CEO of an expanding company is inundated with competing responsibilities, and it's easy to lose sight of your goals. "With so many moving parts in running a business, it is easy to get lost in the day. It is important to have focus and never forget the big picture," says Sidhu. "What is our why? How are our daily tasks helping to achieve our mission?" Don't micromanage, but make sure you know that your management team is on the big tasks. What gets lost in the beginning of your company's growth phase is difficult to resurrect later, so make sure your priorities are always in line.
7. If a Door Closes, Open Another One
When your company encounters a problem - and it will - look outside your industry's box for a solution. BankMobile and other digital neobanks were struggling to acquire customers, and Sidhu wanted BankMobile's solution to differentiate it from the competition. "Most of these banks were struggling with customer acquisition. We struggled for a short time as well trying to figure out our direct to consumer strategy, but then we figured out the secret sauce: distribution partners and white label banking." Instead of using traditional, expensive, brick-and-mortar banking models of attracting clients, BankMobile went to the customers, finding banking partners with a built-in customer base in need of services. Don't feel hemmed in by what your competitors are doing. Instead, intentionally try to do it differently and better. Treat every challenge as an opportunity, and you will constantly open yourself to new avenues for business and new relationships.
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