In 2007, I became MD of LinkedIn Europe and the company’s first employee outside of the US. For the next four years, I was one of the leaders who crafted and executed the hyper-growth strategy that helped LinkedIn expand into five countries, hire 200+ new team members in Europe, and sustain over 150% YOY growth.
My time at LinkedIn, and my recent work coaching hyper-growth leaders, has given me tremendous insight into the new world of rapid growth. In this article series, I share the key hyper-growth lessons I’ve learned from my own experience, from my team and from 15 hyper-growth CEOs, some of whom I’ve drawn lessons from here.
In part 1, I looked at the nature of hypergrowth, which affects successful tech startups.
Here, in part 2, I’ll dig deeper into how hypergrowth can break the systems – and even the people – that propelled the business in the first place…
Something is always broken
In the hypergrowth whirlwind, things break. Manual processes suddenly don’t cut it, and solutions that sailed you through your business’s $1m mark become boat anchors at $20m.
As you’re responding to these breaks, you will also be dealing with the second type of breaking — the kind you initiate yourself.
Many solutions you put in place months ago must be viewed as the “working broken,” ready to be dismantled the moment your organization outgrows them.
This breaking allows your business to grow into something fundamentally different, and greater, than it is now.
Take it from LinkedIn. In 2009, our revenue growth had eclipsed 100% YOY, and our team was increasing rapidly.
With only 13 employees at LinkedIn Europe in mid-2008, demands that were doable the day before quickly began overwhelming our small team.
The recruiting “process” that hired our first 13 would not get us to 50, let alone 250. The influx of new hires broke our on-boarding process.
A key lesson of hypergrowth is that when you open the floodgates, it overwhelms something downstream that now needs to be fixed.
Hence, something is always broken.
Urgent or important?
As a leader, you will need to step up, evaluate the breaks and find solutions. To do so, you need to understand the difference between “urgent” and “important.”
“Urgent” describes time-sensitive issues that will cause consequences if not addressed soon.
“Important” refers to issues that are not constrained by time but may have greater significance in the medium or long term.
Resist the urge to fix all broken things immediately. Evaluate each issue and determine where time and resources are best spent. When you can make these tough calls, you’re stepping up.
One of LinkedIn’s methods for identifying and fixing issues was a “self-healing” system.
We gave each new team member an opportunity to fix one thing in the system. The amount of work was small but came with the highest level of motivation, as new hires saw problems with fresh eyes and were eager to contribute in meaningful ways.
Self-healing fixed problems more quickly and made everyone responsible for making LinkedIn Europe a great team to join.
So start with your baseline. Develop a protocol for finding and fixing issues, and look for non-conforming data as an indicator of something being broken.
Once you identify root causes and impact (cost, customer impact, team, morale, etc.), either have the owner step in or assign the person who will drive the “fix” to completion.
To increase efficiency, establish a problem-response protocol such as S.M.E.A.C. (Situation, Mission, Execution, Admin/Logistics, Command) and a clear definition of what “finished” looks like as early on as possible.
As you define and prioritize hypergrowth breaks, you will often need to implement temporary or limited-scope solutions while a more comprehensive fix is developed.
Don’t invest company time, energy or leadership commitment in “permanent” solutions too soon, as the situation will likely change again shortly.
Always recognize and reward those who step up to tackle a problem. Accountability and appreciation are key.
Leadership and the new normal
In LinkedIn Europe’s early days, our ad sales team was growing fast. But each sales rep did things differently, sales materials were inconsistent, cross-border sales were like the Wild West and customer retention was a challenge because expectations were not set clearly from the start.
“This is not normal,” many employees told us.
Their “normal” was very different from our “normal.” These employees came from big companies that taught them to be driven by process and consistency, but we were starting from the basics.
We needed to develop most solutions from the ground up, and that was a foreign concept to most.
Our leaders established a new “normal” during hypergrowth in which a lot would be created and broken, and problems and solutions would be identified with scalability in mind.
Over time, this “normal” was absorbed into our team culture, and our employees began to see hypergrowth as an opportunity to step up and put into practice all that they had learned from past experiences.
Things are going to break. When this happens, people without hypergrowth experience have a tendency to panic.
Team members will look for a procedure when one doesn’t yet exist, and will fail to realize that the opportunity to define it is right in front of them.
Your main role is to reassure your team that a constant state of breaking, fixing and replacing is normal. As you redefine “normal,” foster a culture of solutions built upon transparency and accountability.
When your team reports a problem, require them to also present a possible solution. Celebrate solutions.
Coaching and self-belief
During hypergrowth, people will see your business transform in front of them. However, they often are not aware that the most important evolution comes from within.
As LinkedIn continued along its steep growth curve, internal doubts began to arise in our leadership and our team. Can I do this? Am I the right person to take on this task?
These questions often surfaced as disappointment, or frustration when something did not go as planned because a detail was overlooked.
These sentiments permeated from senior leadership all the way down to new hires.
The mind has a way of responding to uncertainty with negative mind chatter. Questions of being broken are a natural by-product of growth. Accept they will happen.
The learning curve is as steep as your hypergrowth curve — and so is the transformation within.
At some point, you and your team will ask, Am I broken? The antidote for self-doubt is compassion, understanding and thinking in terms of solutions.
Assure your team that this mind chatter is normal, and help them feel safe. When these doubts come to you as a leader, do not take them as a sign of shortcoming.
Realize that you are growing into your new role. Employ these strategies to overcome negative talk:
1. Have you experienced negative mind chatter before a successful outcome? Ask your team to think of a time when they experienced this situation.
Then, establish that you also have been in this place before, and share what made you successful. Help your team accept negative headtalk as a sign of growth.
2. Reconnect with your vision for yourself and your achievements, first within your team and then within the company.
Use this to re-establish perspective when self-doubt dominates the mind chatter.
3. Seek perspective from a coach and build a safe, trusted community of people who have been in a similar position. Ask peers from other hypergrowth companies about their challenges, experiences and transformation.
Groups such as Young Presidents’ Organization offer a strong peer network to help you navigate these transitions.