I’ve been running Reward Gateway for 10 years now and if I add on the time spent on my previous businesses I’ve been starting and growing businesses for nearly 17 years. I meet lots of CEOs and entrepreneurs as I go about business and a question I often get asked is “When do the growing pains end?”
Well.. If you’re lucky, they don’t.
You see, growing pains feel uncomfortable, deeply uncomfortable and frustrating, But they’re actually a good thing. It’s never great when things in your business, product or team don’t work as they should. It’s never a great day when the execution of what you’re doing falls short of the vision you have in your head. And it’s never good when your company drops the ball on something that you know you should be good at or even you use to be good at.
But growing pains are a fact of life in an ambitious, fast growing business. And they drive you forward. They’re a catalyst for creativity and innovation. They make things happen, they make change. And they are hugely preferable to the three alternatives.
The polar opposite to growing pains – there is nothing worse than going backwards, literally losing market share. If you’re going backwards you’re really in trouble. All the trouble of growing pains but morale will be plummeting and you’ll start to become cash constrained. Once a business starts to contract it’s really, really hard to get it back on track.
It’s easy to get to a certain size and just find that everything clogs up. Thing that used to take hours take days and things that used to take days take weeks and months. You have to fight hard to stay agile. A friend of mine, another CEO, once told me of a dark day when he got to work and found that their average client implementation time had gone from 6 weeks to 6 months, the building was full of consultants on six-figure salaries that he’d never heard of and he had teams of people working on process improvement that were actually stopping any work getting done. His business had grown to the point of inertia and it took some radical pruning to get it back on track.
Probably the worst place, it’s when you’ve decided that everything is working how it should and nothing is broken. Essentially you’ve run out of ideas. I remember a few years ago I asked my ex-Chairman and mentor Andy Vaughan, “How will I know when it’s time to hand over to a new CEO?” He answered, “Oh that’s easy – its when you’ve ran out of ideas, when you think there’s nothing left to change or do. Until then, as long as you’re still frustrated with where it’s at – keep at it.”
And the thing about growing pains is they always look much, much worse from the inside. There are so many great businesses that I know that are doing great thing and making customers happy – they look pretty sharp from the outside but under the hood, they’re a mess of people peddling like crazy and fixing what they can in flight. It’s OK, it’s all part of the job.
Leadership is about seeing what’s next. And of course, you should never get there.
Whether you’re running a company, a division, a product or a team – part of what makes a good leader is being able to see where you need to get to next. And here’s the thing, as soon as you get there, it’s not good enough. It’s like you reached the next island only to find that now you can see further, so you can see another island. And when you reach that one, you can see further again – and guess what? There’s another island.
So I’ve learned over the last 15 years that the growing pains won’t end, and it’s OK. The job isn’t to eradicate the, but to learn to live with them. To learn to live with the permanent sense of discomfort and use it positively to power you on. You need to make sure the frustration doesn’t tear you apart and you need to make sure that you and your team don’t burn out. You need to find a way of it being sustainable in the long term.
And for that, my best suggestion was in last week’s post – The most important meeting of my day.