My cofounder Cathy wrote a great post on the Bolster blog back in January called Procrastinating Executive Development, in which she talks about the fact that even executives who appreciate the value of professional development usually don’t get to it because they’re too busy or don’t realize how important it is. I see this every day with CEOs and founders. Cathy had a well phrased but somewhat gentle ask at the end of her post:
My ask for all CEOs is this: give each of your executives the gift of feedback now, and hold each other accountable for continued growth and development to match the growth and development of your company.
Let me put it in starker terms:
Grow or Die.
Every executive, every professional, can scale further than they think is possible, and further than you think is possible. Most of us do have some ceiling somewhere…but it will take us years to find it (if we ever find it). The key to scaling is a growth mentality. You have to not just value development, you have to crave it, view it as essential, and prioritize it.
Startups are incredibly dynamic. You’re creating something out of nothing. Disrupting an industry. Revolutionizing something. Putting a dent in the universe. For a startup to succeed, it has to constantly put something in market, learn, calibrate, accelerate, maybe pivot, and most of all grow. How can a leader of a startup scale from one stage of life to the next without focusing on personal growth and development if the job changes from one quarter to the next?
I was lucky enough to have a great leadership team at my prior company, Return Path, over the course of 20 years. Within that long block of time with many executives, there was a particular period of time, roughly 2004-2012, that I jokingly refer to as the “golden age.” That’s when we grew the business from roughly $5mm in revenue to $50 or $60mm. The remarkable thing was that we executed that growth with the same group of 5-6 senior executives. A couple new people joined the team, and we struggled to get one executive role right, but by and large one core group took us from small to mid-sized. Why? We looked at each other — literally, in one meeting where we were talking about professional development — and said, “we have to commit to individual coaching, to team coaching, and to growth as leaders, or the company will outpace us and we’ll be roadkill.”
That set us on a path to focus on our own growth and development as leaders. We were constantly reading and sharing relevant articles, blog posts, and books. We engaged in a lot of coaching and development instruments like MBTI, TKI, and DISC. We learned the value of retrospectives, transparent 360s, and a steady diet of feedback. We challenged ourselves to do better. We worked at it. As one of the members of the Golden Age said of our work, “we went to the gym.”
The “Grow or Die” mantra is real. You can’t possibly be successful in today’s world if you’re not learning, if you don’t have a growth mentality. You are never the smartest person in the room. The minute you are convinced that you are…you’re screwed.
If you don’t believe me, look at the development of your business itself as a metaphor for your own development as a leader. What happens to your startup if it stops growing?
(You can find this post on the Bolster Blog here)