Companies Often Grow Faster Than People

growthA number of years ago I took on a client who controlled multiple businesses, one of which was in a continuous ten year growth cycle with no end in sight. It wasn’t so much the economy that was generating this unheard of momentum as it was the president/owner’s personal drive in adding new customers, the equipment to support their unique requirements and then delivering on his promises.

During an initial visit, I walked the floor of one of the company’s production facilities, introducing myself, explaining my role and trying to be a good listener in terms of what the folks I met had to say. I will always remember my conversation with one particular individual who was machining precision parts when I approached. He idled the machine so we could talk and over the background noise introduced himself first by title and then by name. He told me he was a vice president!

Later that day, I met with the president and asked if one of his VPs was working on the floor that day. The answer was ‘yes,’ he does that every day. In fact, the gentlemen in question, (we’ll call him Bill,) had been one of the company’s first employees, a ‘rock star.’ He made things happen in the early years and it just seemed that as the company grew the right thing to do was to make him vice president of manufacturing. Didn’t take long though, as the business doubled about every three years there came a point where the skills required to be vice president of a few failed when the challenge was to be vice president of many.

‘Mary’s just not as effective as she used to be; she tends to forget things.’ ‘What’s up with Mike?  He’s dropping the ball – it’s not like him to do that?’

Chances are, Bill, Mary and Mike are just as capable as when they were thought of as key players, but without additional training, their enhanced responsibilities, if only a result of sheer volume increases, have set them up for failure. When enterprises accelerate with explosive growth, and they’ve been known to do so from time to time, good performers can be left behind!  Not everyone grows as fast as the enterprise does.

Think about it!  Dynamic economic growth is obsoleting some really terrific employees who got us to the dance in the first place. What to do?

First, remediate. If in retrospect you piled on additional responsibilities and tasks on key players and they faltered, share the responsibility for that outcome. They didn’t cry wolf, or if they did, you didn’t hear but most likely you took their performance for granted…until you looked in the rearview mirror.

Skill development. If you’re fortunate to have hit a plateau and have some breathing room – priority #1, work with your key players who are now on the fence to develop skill enhancement programs that will make them more effective and more comfortable in carrying out their expanded responsibilities. Doing so will likely have a great ROI, certainly better than that on the cost of recruiting and training a replacement.

Look over your shoulder! If you’ve spotted ‘future’ stars in the organization, acknowledge that perspective with them and assess whether they are willing to invest time (matching your money) to prepare themselves for greater responsibility and accountability. Be sure to let them know that this is an option, not a mandate. Not everyone wants to advance. If they enjoy what they’re doing but only want to be more effective at it, support them in that goal.  Sergeants run the Army!

Indeed, people are our greatest resource and becoming more and more in short supply. Yet, when we are pressed to meet the ever more complex demands of our clients/customers, employee development has a high probability of being sidelined while we call for ‘all hands on deck.’

Lessons learned!  Our obligation as executives is to create dignified, nurturing environments in which all can aspire to their true potential. Some will reach higher than others and none deserve to be set up for failure.

Read more: Now Hiring: Homo Disruptiens

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.