Hyper-growth can feel like a double-edged sword for many private company founders and CEOs. One on hand, there might be nothing more satisfying than achieving product-market fit and growing a business faster than originally expected. On the other hand, rapid growth without scale can often lead to resources stretched thin, a disjointed company culture, and many sleepless nights for the CEO.
Just ask Brian Long, CEO and co-founder of Attentive, personalized mobile messaging solution (and a Founders Circle Capital portfolio company). In the first five years under Brian’s leadership, Attentive has experienced 49,155% revenue growth, grown headcount to over 1,200 employees, and reached a $1 billion+ valuation. To match that meteoric growth, Brian and Attentive’s leadership had to quickly learn how to scale their product, processes, and team through a process that’s known as “hyper-scale.”
Brian recently sat down with other CEOs from The Circle, a private leadership community for high-performing executives, to share his scar tissue, biggest learnings, and tips on navigating hyper–scale.
Here are five key takeaways from that conversation:
#1. Focus on What You Like to Do and Are Good At
Many CEOs want to be completely hands-on with every aspect of their business during the early stages of company growth; but, for a company in hyper-growth mode, that will quickly become untenable. Instead, Brian believes CEOs (and every leader for that matter) should be able to work within a Venn diagram of what they enjoy doing and what they are good at and hire against everything that falls outside of that. “If you’re not sure what that list of responsibilities is, look back at your past few workweeks, highlight what gave you energy, and put in red the things that took energy away.” (Note: if you want to dive deeper on that topic, Brian suggested checking out “The Great CEO Within” by Matt Mochary.)
Another important quality of a CEO in hyper-scaling mode is the ability to embrace change:
“The CEO job changes every three to six months. The biggest thing that helps in managing through that is embracing constant change.”
#2. Encourage Your Employees to be Vulnerable
Disgruntled employees and an embattled company culture are toxic to hyper-scaling. Brian emphasized that lack of communication between managers and their direct reports and spending too much mental energy on small problems will crush your productivity. Instead, the best approach to scaling team culture is by encouraging employees to be vulnerable with each other.
When emotions run high or tension is palpable within an organization, the most effective way to get to the root of the problem is to frame the conversation around fear. “Ask your employees: ‘what is it that scares you?’ and encourage your leaders to do the same.” Focusing on fear establishes empathy and also builds trust within your organization, which is critical to building culture.”
#3. Make Work Feel More Personal (Even While Remote)
Like many CEOs over the past two years, Brian learned how to keep employees engaged in a remote work environment. While there’s no substitute for in-person interaction, one tactic he found helpful in making virtual meetings more productive was using a shared doc for everyone to collaborate on.
Start meetings by having each team member document their top wins and their biggest blockers in real-time. Doing this creates a positive environment while ensuring that discussions don’t get monopolized by one or two people. Leaders can also use this format to crowdsource feedback from their employees, asking open-ended questions like “what could we be doing better as a company?”
Transparency is critical, especially for distributed workforces.
#4. Stay Closely Involved in the Hiring & Recruiting Process
It can be tempting to outsource talent acquisition, but Brian firmly believes that CEOs should stay involved as often as they can. In the early stages of growth, CEOs should really be pitching candidates, selling them on the company’s mission and vision. When that’s no longer feasible, it’s okay to step back from the process but consider lending your name and presence when engaging with top talent prospects (ex. have recruiters send cold LinkedIn outreach emails “from the CEO”) and participating in the final round interviews if and when possible.
Many challenges in recruiting talent will come down to knowing who to hire and what to look for in a candidate. To solve that, Brian recommended canvassing strong hires at other companies, learning what makes them great at their jobs and what they look for in an employer. You can use all of that data to create templates for candidate interviews.
#5. Remember That Speed is Your Greatest Asset
Forewarning: hypers-caling any company will get messy, and that’s okay. Things will inherently break, employees will leave, and products will hit roadblocks. In times like these, CEOs may feel internal or external pressure to lean into process and getting things “back on track.” It’s important to establish process, Brian said, but speed is your greatest asset for hyper-scaling companies.
“There’s this deep cultural thing where you have to be comfortable with consummate change, not resting on your laurels, evolving to survive, putting speed first, and finding people that are very comfortable with making those types of changes and pushing that type of innovation to stay relevant.”
No matter what stage of growth your company is in, CEOs can always benefit from other leaders’ support and shared insights. That’s what we offer in The Circle. Apply to join The Circle and discover a private leadership community designed to help you scale yourself so that you can scale your company.