Oct 4 2012

Scaling Horizontally

Scaling Horizontally

Other CEOs ask me from time to time how we develop people at Return Path, how we scale our organization, how we make sure that we aren’t just hiring in new senior people as we grow larger.  And there are good answers to those questions – some of which I’ve written about before, some of which I’ll do in the future.

But one thing that occurred to me in a conversation with another CEO recently was that, equally important to the task of helping people scale by promoting them whenever possible is the task of recognizing when that can’t work, and figuring out another solution to retain and grow those people.  A couple other things I’ve written on this specific topic recently include:

The Peter Principle Applied to Management, which focuses on keeping people as individual contributors when they’re not able to move vertically into a management role within their function or department, and

You Can’t Teach a Cat How to Bark, But you Might be able to Teach it How to Walk on its Hind Legs, which talks about understanding people’s limitations.

Another important point to make here, though, is thinking about how to help employees scale horizontally instead of vertically (e.g., to more senior/management roles within their existing function or department).  Horizontally scaling is allowing employees to continue to grow and develop, and overtime, become more senior and more valuable to the organization, by moving into different roles on different teams.

We’ve had instances over the years of engineering managers becoming product managers; account managers becoming product managers; product managers becoming sales leaders; client operations people moving into marketing; account managers moving into sales; I could go on and on. We’ve even had executives switch departments or add completely new functions to their portfolio.

Moves like this don’t always work. You do have to make sure people have the aptitude for their new role. But when moves like this do work, they’re fantastic. You give people new challenges, keep them fresh and energized, bring new perspective to teams, and retain talent and knowledge.  And when you let someone scale horizontally, make sure to celebrate the move publicly so others know that kind of thing can be available… and be sure to reward the person for their knowledge and performance to date, even if they’re moving laterally within your org chart.