The 3 Most Common Reasons Most CEOs Struggle to Scale

What I know from working with hundreds of execs who try to grow through culture

I don’t understand — why can’t people just get in line and get shit done?”

Finally — the words he’d been wanting to say came blurting out of his mouth. Tim had asked me to help him develop his skills as a leader, and had been playing the “good client” for months. It can take awhile for leaders to really open up; we all want to be perceived as though we’re doing a good job, even when we ask for help.

Tim had kicked off each of our conversations with questions about his team’s performance, but this was the first time I experienced Tim’s frustration about what was holding his business back. And delving deeper I could see that his concern — if people weren’t able to align or work hard, would the business grow? And how could they scale now in a crisis?

I’ve helped hundreds of founders and execs around the world who want to grow their businesses, and while each of their stories is unique, I often see the same pattern: they feel stuck or they’re full-on panicking as they steer their ship through increasingly choppy seas and can clearly see the icebergs coming toward them. Add in a global pandemic and many of these leaders are now questioning whether their ships are at all seaworthy.

Most of the executives that come to work with me and my partners at Within People have the same question: how do I grow the company I want without turning my business into a nightmare that keeps me up at night? They want stability, they want their team to do their best work, and they want to be able to scale their impact. At the end of the day, they want to be proud of what they’ve worked so hard to build.

Tim was no different. As we worked together to reframe his company culture, three reasons emerged as to why he had been struggling to scale. Each reason points to lessons in how we lead, make decisions, and shape the experience of our culture.

The first reason stands out as the most critical — and it’s essential to the way leaders face new challenges, and deal with uncertainty and the seismic shifts in our society.

While conditioning has led us to believe that leadership “strength” requires us to rely on command and control to drive performance, and that demanding ever more from people is crucial to growth, we have found the opposite: leaders who step into vulnerability, treat people like adults, let go of power, and make space for everyone to shine are the ones who build successful companies that can weather any storm.

Our research with executives running companies of all sizes revealed eight essential qualities of 21s century leadership. Regardless of geography, generation, or gender, what surfaced were human qualities that everyone has access to. Empathy, patience, and love have become the superpowers of today’s executives. We see them as the pathway to unlocking the full spectrum of people’s potential and creativity.

Within People — The eight qualities of 21st century leaders

Senior leaders often feel a tension between their ambition and their humanity, and between the desire to demand results vs. the ability to nurture and grow people and the business over the long term.

For Tim, coming to terms with this tension involved understanding that commanding people to work harder had the opposite effect. Getting past this roadblock required him to explore what success actually meant to him in order to let go of ways of leading that were not serving him. Leading his management team more effectively required him to connect more deeply with each team member in order to become aware of and to truly understand the challenges they faced.

How could Tim unlearn the myths he had been taught about what “high performance” looked like? Could he stop comparing his success to others in order to enable his business to grow in more meaningful ways?

Which of the eight qualities is your strength?
Which quality is your stretch — to step into, unlearn and grow from?
What quality does your business need more of right now?

Tim cared for his people. He even thought his company was a great employer because they invested a lot into perks. So he felt infuriated when his people didn’t meet their targets. “Maybe I’m too soft on them,” he often thought.

COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement raised flags for all of us about equality, social justice, and well-being, and brought the real needs of employees front and center. The boundaries between life and work are more blurry than ever, and it has become clear that people have different expectations about how they want their career to look and feel as our working world changes.

Understanding how to create an equitable employee experience — where everyone has the chance to thrive — isn’t exclusively your HR team’s job. Every leader needs to align on creating a workplace where people are valued, included, and where they are given the opportunity to thrive.

We set out how to get started rethinking organizational design in our ebook Emerging Stronger, with a new way to consider a holistic approach to the employee experience. While leaders seem to be focused today on repopulation and how to offer flexibility, they are missing the opportunity to pause and review how their culture works.

Tim thought he had created an environment where people had a voice and autonomy, but he often heard from his managers that they felt he didn’t trust them. He had a tendency to give responsibility to some people, but not to others. And the way he rewarded people was neither transparent nor consistent.

As a CEO he had become unaware how much of an impact these actions had had on his team’s performance because he believed they’d worked hard to create a fun workplace where people were well taken care of. But the perks of the job were less important to the team than belonging in an environment where they were trusted and empowered to make an impact.

The fact is, perks are dead — promises are the future.

What perks have you offered?
What kinds of promises might you make instead?
How will you show you live up to the promises you make?

Yes, a reimagined employee experience needs to be based on a solid foundation of equity and inclusion, alongside health and well-being. But our world and our businesses face other important challenges every day. Through it all, our purpose must remain clear.

Purpose acts as our North Star to guide us toward our vision of growth. While 73% of leaders believe that having a well-integrated purpose would help their business grow despite times of challenge, only 9% feel their purpose is being put to use (EY Beacon Institute 2018). Is purpose providing meaning and connection to your people, or was it just a marketing exercise?

How we act on our purpose tells our people, customers, and shareholders a lot about who we are. And when our business purpose resonates with the passions of our employees, they will find meaning in what they do.

Half of today’s workforce would take a 15% pay cut to work for a company with an aspiring purpose.

80% of the respondents in a recent survey would rather have a boss who cared about them finding meaning and success in work than receive a 20% pay increase — Harvard Business Review

Tim expected people to deliver so that the business would grow — for him. What he didn’t understand was that while people come to work for you — and follow you — they don’t come to work so that you can succeed. They work to make an impact, fulfil their dreams, and grow themselves. We can recognize them for the value they create that advances our purpose.

Are your people connected to purpose?
How does your vision of growth include meaningful impact?
How might you use purpose to navigate the challenges ahead?

The shift to 21st century business is happening. And it starts with you.

So goes the leader, so goes the culture. So goes the culture, so goes the company. — Simon Sinek

Full disclosure — “Tim” isn’t a single client. His thoughts, feelings, and questions represent the experience of hundreds of leaders I have coached through crisis and opportunity. What I’ve described him going through happens to all founders and CEOs. Some of what I shared here might resonate with your experience too. As a leader of a growing global business myself, I know how important and tough it can be to lead from the heart, continuously improve the employee experience, and connect people to purpose. This work is our most critical responsibility.

To grow a business in the 21st century, we need to understand that the old ways of leading don’t work anymore. The way we do business has fundamentally changed, and leadership must change too. And it all happens from within.

Brand strategist, retired music producer, and exec coach for CEOs around the world. Fellow of the RSA. Founding partner of Within People.

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