I've done a lot of research into what makes a great leader, along with what inspires employees to perform their best. For executives managing rapid growth, these strategies take on heightened importance.
As you're onboarding a multitude of new customers and boosting headcount to meet demand, you're also tasked with maintaining an engaged workplace. It's not an easy thing to do.
To get a real sense of what leaders of rapid-growth companies deal with, I spoke with Lily Shen, President and COO of Transfix, the NYC-based freight marketplace that connects supply chain professionals to truckers around the U.S.
Shen is no stranger to growth, having worked for eBay, Wealthfront and IDEO before joining Transfix. She described three important tips for leaders during rapid scaling:
1. Inspire a shared vision and celebrate wins.
When growing rapidly, you know you're solving a real need. But as you stretch, you often have to ask a lot of your staff. There are plenty of late nights and weekends, with employees crossing over to handle double duty as headcount catches up to demand. If your mission is not clear, you are liable to lose folks who won't think the hustle is worthwhile.
Shen's view is that leaders must communicate company goals properly and inspire a shared vision that motivates employees to go above and beyond. Shen shares, "Startups have big, audacious goals and they seek to drive impact and positive change for the future. It doesn't happen overnight. It's a marathon filled with sprints, so it's important to make sure that everyone is working together to bring that vision to life and to celebrate wins along the way."
Ensuring strong communication and goals is critical, she says, so the team knows exactly how their hard work is contributing to the overarching goals.
2. Identify leaders who can adapt and grow -- and invest in them.
Rapid growth also means that the shape of your organization will change quickly, and leadership needs to be strategic, creative and empathetic to adjust effectively as that happens.
Shen says that strong leaders with multidisciplinary backgrounds and team-building skills are best at understanding a company's shape today, and to partner with to build the right teams and organization for tomorrow.
"We're constantly investing in diversity at an individual and team level. We look for functional or industry experts who are generalists with analogous experiences, who are scrappy and who have seen what great looks like. No matter their background, they must share the capacity, curiosity and hunger to grow with the business, to tackle new challenges, to take on more, and who seek to be leaders, directly or indirectly."
Shen suggests building a strong network of diverse, top talent, and not being afraid to access the channels around you.
"Making the right hires and identifying top talent across the organization is critical to the company's success, at every stage. The business and organization will continue to evolve, especially in high-growth. You need leaders who are dedicated to pushing the status-quo and building systems, rolling up their sleeves and inspiring others to follow. Even if a specific role is not open, you need to constantly meet outstanding candidates with diverse backgrounds and be open-minded about how, where and when the individual can have impact. This is core to our ongoing hiring strategy and enables us to bring on the best talent quickly. "
3. Focus on goals, but be creative in how you get there.
It can take a while to find this type of talent, but the old adage of "hire slow" doesn't necessarily apply to rapidly-growing startups. Demand for talent often outpaces supply, especially in competitive markets. Getting creative about organizational shape and the talent you have on-hand can help to solve that issue.
"Sometimes you also need to adapt the organization to fit the talent," said Shen. "You hire for what you expect, but you must also deploy existing resources strategically. Giving individuals opportunities to take on new challenges can be highly beneficial for the organization. As the company grows, leaders across the organization will have a better understanding and appreciation for how other areas of the company work. This leads to stronger collaboration, better solutions, and shared learning."
That shared learning stems from team diversity, not just in terms of age or race, but in terms of experience.
"Whether it's Stanford grads collaborating with industry veterans with 20+ years of logistics experience, of engineers and data scientists working with operations, it's always about constantly connecting and bringing together the best of tech and key experts in and across functions and industries to evolve. It's a recipe that works for any industry."