All firms go through a number of stages (with the exception of lifestyle businesses; irrespective of whether they are lifestyle by commission or omission), and that’s entirely natural.
Progressing from one stage to another is usually painful, but it is a necessity if the firm is to evolve and grow. The important thing, if your intention is to see your firm develop and flourish, is to (a) recognise that you do have to move the firm’s culture on and (b) have a set of mental rules in place to make sure that as you grow, you do not lose the essence of what it is that made your business special in the first place. Which of these stages are you at:
Starry-eyed. This is often the most exciting bit. The firm is new, everyone is rushing around to win clients, service them and do all of the things necessary to build a business. Plate-spinning and juggling analogies spring to mind.
The painful things – cash flow squeezes, long hours and so on – are forgotten in the thrill of it all. And the palpable excitement in the firm contributes to the culture of the place, and gives it the additional zest and energy it needs to compete with longer-established rivals.
It’s also the stage where, very often, things that are undesirable – some staff not being as committed to the firm as they should be; work being under-priced; etc – are carried along in the slipstream of fast-moving activity. They live somewhere between only being noticed at the fringes of what you are focussing on, and being tolerated on the grounds that when things calm down a bit you will get around to addressing them.
Bleary-eyed. I think this is the most frustrating phase. You have been growing like mad and you are determined that even as you get bigger, you will stick to your principles and make your firm a decent place to work; where staff are treated exceptionally well, and so on.
But even although you are now established; maybe even a reasonable size, every time you take two steps forward, something happens to move you one step back. Growing feels impossible – there are only so many hours in the day and you know that if you spend any more time on new business, existing business will walk. You spend forever being bogged down in staff problems, most of which feel as if they are the result of stupid, trivial things going wrong. The real big challenges ahead just don’t get enough of your attention. And the clients that once feted you are now sniping about your fees.
Some of the fun seems to have gone out of the place; staff turnover is up; staff absences are more frequent; the chance of chasing after a big bit of new business is greeted with a groan rather than a cheer. You lose pitches you really should be winning. Some of your best people leave to set up on their own, or join a rival.
And then you realise that actually, some of the problems you are stuck with now have been around for a long time – it’s just that there are more of them, more pressing than ever.
If you stay stuck here, you will eventually fade into irrelevance or go out of business. This phase can be deadly unless you make it transient.
Gimlet-eyed. Actually, once you get here, this phase – although it brings strategic challenges – is often the easiest phase of all, in terms of day-to-day business.
The firm is growing impressively; evolving exciting new services, opening new offices. Productivity measures routinely exceed £110K / head. You have an actual management team, that takes some of the management burden off your shoulders, so the place is well-run. It may lack some of the brio and elan of the old place, but it’s a much more solid, more significant business. It’s where most people dream of getting to….
So how do you move from one phase to another? In essence it all comes down to creating the right culture, creating the right rules and KPI’s and keeping the emphasis properly balanced as you grow. And the balance you are striving for is between making your business a fun, satisfying place to work; and keeping it commercial.
More on that in future blogs.
Meanwhile, there’s much to do and time is slipping away, so good luck and get cracking.