Managing in the growth plates.

March 21, 2018. Filed under management 127

The last year of Digg, we were heads down executing, trying to carve a path out of falling user numbers and an evaporating cash reserve. When we were acquired by SocialCode, I jumped right into execution mode, and instant conflict. What I'd learned over the past two years about leadership–execute, execute, execute–was disruptive, and I couldn't figure out why. I've seen the opposite happen just as often, with experienced, successful managers from well-established companies diving into a startup and exiting soon thereafter with a legacy of ineffective initiatives.

The most confusing places to start are mid-sized, rapidly growing companies. That's because parts of the company are growing rapidly, with an emphasis on execution, and other parts have largely stabilized, with ideas becoming the more valued currency. Long bones have growth plates at their ends, which is where the growth happens, and the middle doesn't grow. This is a pretty apt metaphor for rapidly growing companies, and a useful mental model when trying to understand why your behaviors might not be resonating in a new role.

In the growth plates

At a small startup or in a rapidly growing companies growth-plates, you're mostly dealing with new problems. These new problems are not necessarily novel (most problems are people problems), but they are problems that your company has never prioritized long enough to get a usable solution out the door. This means you can't expect to succeed by iterating on the status quo.

You'd expect that novel ideas would be heavily valued in these circumstances, but interestingly it's the opposite: execution is the primary currency in the growth plates. That's because you typically have a surplus of fairly obvious ideas to try, and constrained bandwidth on evaluating those ideas.

It's common for well-meaning folks from outside the growth plates to jump in to help by supplying more ideas, but that's counterproductive: what folks in the growth plates need is help reducing and executing the existing backlog of ideas, not adding more ideas that must be evaluated. Folks in these scenarios are missing the concrete resources necessary to execute, and supplying those resources is the only way to help: giving more ideas feels helpful, but isn't.

Finally, I think it's important to recognize in the growth plates that you are focused on surviving to the next round, which might be a different growth challenge, or might be the team stabilizing. It is extremely hard to consistently do the basics well in these circumstances, because you simply won't have enough time to do them well: you'll have to get comfortable doing as well as time constraint allow, and sometimes that will lead to being mediocre at things you're passionate about. I personally find that I shift into working on the system, and–embarrassingly and unfortunately–tend to cut down on many facets of people management.

Outside the growth plates

Away from the growth plates, you mostly are working on problems with known solutions. Known solutions are amenable to iterative improvement, so it would make sense for execution to be highly valued, but in practice I find that ideas–especially ideas that are new within your company–are most highly prized.

All slow-growth environments used to be high-growth environments, which means they were once run by someone who was a sufficiently effective executor to evolve them into a slow-growth environment, and consequently there tends to be less iterative improvement available than you'd expect. So often we make solid executors responsible for slower growth areas–we need the innovators in the highest growth ones–but the opposite tends to work better.

As a manager, this is the environment for you to do the basics very, very well. Spend time building rich relationships, gelling your team, working with them on career development. Build up so when innovation or external change pushes you off your local maxima, you and the team are ready and rested.

Aligning with values

The message I'd end with is a simple one: be thoughtful about carrying your values with you from one context into another. Leadership is matching appropriate action to your current context, and it's pretty uncommon that any two situations will flourish from the same behaviors. If you're working in the growth plates–or outside of them–for the first time, treat it like a brand new role. It is!

Thanks to Bobby, Kevin, Uma for shaping this post.