Navigating Growth and Scale: Strategies for Leading Through Change

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When I graduated college and was seeking my first role, the show Mad Men – which delved in the professional and personal dynamics of advertising agency life in the 1960s and 1970s – had just premiered on AMC. Given I studied Journalism and Public Relations, I at once gravitated to the show. It was an interesting case study for me to understand how businesses navigated change previously and compare it to my experiences in the early 2000s.

One quote from the lead character, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), has stayed with me to this very day: “Change is neither good or bad, it simply is.” Over the last 20 years of my professional career, I’ve been faced with change and now in many cases lead change efforts.

The stakes today have never been higher. Companies are striving to grow and scale amidst economic uncertainty, market shifts, and technological disruptions. Over the course of just a few years, the very nature of how we work is drastically different, leading to workers – whether they’re hybrid, fully remote, or in the office – feeling lonelier than ever.

The common thread among all these situations is effective leadership: It’s the linchpin that holds everything together. While leaders may see light at the end of the tunnel, they also need to guide their teams through periods of transition and upheaval, understanding their teams may not share the same perspective.

Understanding Change: VUCA and BANI

Traditionally, many organizations used the term VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) to describe the unpredictable and rapidly changing environment. Originally developed by the US Army War College in the 1990s, VUCA described the dynamic geopolitical landscape following the end of the Cold War. Today, we use it to describe challenges and uncertainties in business—from economic and political changes to technological disruption and global pandemics.

In contrast, a new framework, BANI (brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and incomprehensible), developed by futurist and author Jamais Cascio, describes the fragility and vulnerability of organizations facing unpredictable and nonlinear change. VUCA focuses on the business environment and adaptability, while BANI addresses the external forces of change and innovation.

The reality is that we’re living in both worlds, and businesses must have the right tools and knowledge to address both in today’s environment. The risk of not getting this right is the flight of top talent—a scenario we can ill afford. In this article, we’ll delve into three powerful strategies that empower leaders to navigate change effectively, manage growth and scale, and ultimately lead their teams to success.

Credit: The Agile Company

Embrace a Growth Mindset

The first fundamental step toward thriving amidst change is embracing a growth mindset. This means believing that abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication, hard work, and a willingness to learn from setbacks. Cultivating a growth mindset within an organization is crucial for resilience and adaptability.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, shared research showing that individuals and organizations with a growth mindset are better equipped to handle challenges and transitions. "Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts)."

By fostering a growth mindset, leaders can instill a sense of resilience and adaptability within their teams. Employees are more likely to embrace change as an opportunity for growth and development rather than viewing it as a threat. This mindset encourages continuous learning, risk-taking, and the willingness to experiment with new ideas—all crucial elements for navigating the complexities of growth and scaling.

For example, under the leadership of Satya Nadella, Microsoft underwent a remarkable transformation. Nadella encouraged a growth mindset, shifting the company's focus from traditional software to cloud computing and embracing open-source technologies. This cultural shift enabled Microsoft to navigate its transition successfully, appearing as a leading company by market cap.

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Cultivate a Culture of Trust and Transparency

Trust and transparency are essential ingredients for effective leadership during times of change. When employees feel trusted and have access to transparent communication, they are more likely to buy into the organization's vision and remain engaged throughout the process of growth and scaling.

Deloitte’s 2024 Global Human Capital Trends research highlights the importance of trust and transparency, with 88 percent of survey respondents recognizing its significance. However, only 52 percent are actively making progress in this area, and a mere 13 percent believe they are excelling at it. Companies that bridge this gap are more likely to unlock better performance. Research shows that companies enhancing transparency and trust are twice as likely to achieve their desired business outcomes and 2.4 times more likely to achieve positive human outcomes.

Building trust and transparency within an organization starts with leaders modeling these behaviors themselves. Open communication, accountability, and leading by example are crucial in fostering an environment where employees feel valued and respected. Renie Cavallari, author of HEADTRASH: Dumping Toxic Habits and Clearing Emotional Clutter, emphasizes in a #shifthappens podcast that leaders should connect on a human level to build trust and rapport. Simple actions, like taking someone to lunch or recognizing them personally, help. Vulnerability also strengthens bonds, as we relate more to each other's challenges than successes.

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During a time of significant transformation, especially digital transformation, focusing on soft skills might seem counterintuitive. However, Gino Degregori of Bravo Consulting Group shares that leading with kindness can profoundly affect company culture and employee engagement. In a recent #shifthappens podcast, he explained that technology will come and go, but people matter most. Even a little extra kindness can make an enormous difference in how teams collaborate and perform.

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Invest in Employee Development and Upskilling

As technology and markets evolve rapidly, staying ahead requires constant learning and upskilling. By supporting employee development and offering opportunities for upskilling, leaders can equip their teams with the skills and knowledge needed to drive growth and scale effectively.

According to the World Economic Forum, by next year, humans and machines will spend equal time on current tasks at work. This statistic highlights the need to enhance and update employee skills to keep pace with progress and adapt to shifting workforce needs.

Effective employee development strategies include:

1. Training programs: Offering comprehensive training programs that focus on developing new skills and keeping employees up to date with industry trends and best practices. A study by the Association for Training and Development found that companies with comprehensive training programs enjoyed a 24 percent higher profit margin and 218 percent higher income per employee than companies with less focus on employee development.

2.Mentorship and coaching: Setting up mentorship programs that pair experienced professionals with new or developing employees fosters knowledge transfer and guidance. More than 4 in 10 workers who don’t have a mentor say they’ve considered quitting their job in the last three months, compared with just 25 percent of those with a mentor.

3. Cross-functional collaboration: Encouraging cross-functional collaboration and job rotations allows employees to gain exposure to distinct aspects of the business and develop a well-rounded skillset. Career management and internal mobility is in the top 5 of Gartner’s HR priorities for 2024, with 86 percent of HR leaders surveyed believing the career paths at their organizations are unclear for many employees.

4. Learning resources: Providing access to online courses, workshops, and educational resources that enable employees to continuously learn and upskill at their own pace. The Upskilling and Employee Learning 2024 survey found that offering this flexibility is the top way organizations support upskilling, a significant shift from traditionally tightly controlled learning programs.

    By prioritizing employee development and upskilling, leaders can foster a culture of continuous learning and growth within their organizations. This not only prepares teams to navigate change and scale more effectively but also contributes to employee engagement, retention, and overall organizational success.

    The Bottom Line

    To bring it back to Mad Men, I’ll leave you with another of my favorite quotes from Don Draper: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Growth and scale are challenging goals that demand a comprehensive and flexible approach from leaders. By adopting a growth mindset, promoting a culture of trust and openness, and supporting employee development and upskilling, leaders can successfully manage change and prepare their organizations for long-term success.

    As businesses look to grow and scale in a complex and uncertain environment, effective leadership is the key factor that motivates teams, sparks innovation, and drives organizations toward their goals. By implementing these three strategies, leaders can position themselves and their teams for success, managing change with assurance and becoming industry leaders in their domains.

    Get more strategies to thrive in times of growth and change in our recent post, Scaling Up: 3 Traits of Businesses Built to Thrive in 2024.

    3 Traits of Businesses Built to Thrive in 2024

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