We were working with a client recently on their great desire to allow their team to grow in their roles. They told us the team had commented on their desire to see a future in this creative company, and to know what their path might be. And these two leaders, with a deep heart to serve, wanted to know how to give their team a clear path of their growth in the company.
For caring leaders, this produces a conundrum. They desperately want to give their team what they want (a clear path for growth) while balancing the realities of what a company can afford in its investment in higher salaries, or bigger roles that a company is not yet ready to support. We’ll develop some principles around this conundrum at the end of this article, but bear with me as I give you some context using a metaphor.
To aid us in learning about the principles of a team’s growth, think about the flow of information through a creative company as a stream. For smaller companies, the flow of information is a smaller stream, and the team is in a canoe floating on top of that stream of information. As companies grow and become more complex, the stream becomes a river that moves more quickly and begins to form eddies around which teams must navigate on their boat (they exchanged their canoe for a boat at this point). Company complexities that create this faster rushing river include more complex clients, larger team sizes, drastic market changes, or a lack of communication from the owners to the team. Many things can create more complexity in a creative human-centered company. At first, teams can navigate these waters as they all row the boat in the same direction (it’s a whole different matter if the team is not rowing in the same direction). But as the waters move more quickly and it becomes more difficult to navigate these complex waters, the team begins to spend more time rowing the boat, dodging the eddies, keeping the boat repaired, and also trying to enjoy the ride inside the boat.
At some point, more complex creative companies begin to lose sight of an important point: where they are headed. When you are busy minding the ship and trying to enjoy the ride, teams often lose sight of where the boat is headed, how fast it is moving, and newer tools that are needed to provide insight as to their direction (like workflow software). The team can’t see where they are going when the company becomes more complex and moves at a much faster pace.
So what is a business leader to do? At this point, someone has to get out of this moving boat, travel farther ahead of where the boat is going, climb up to a higher point of perspective and begin to navigate the boat from a higher perspective (perhaps a precipice or up in a tree). This becomes necessary because of the pace of the information flowing through the company. When the full flow of information picks up pace in a creative company, a team can quickly lose sight of their purpose. Steering the boat becomes more difficult and serving the clients suffers too. The caring leader up in a higher perspective can communicate instructions to the team to steer and dodge eddies at appropriate times by telling them things that are up ahead. For this work to be successful, (1) the leader must be consistently present in watching the pace of complexity growing in the company (2) while the team must trust that leader and their communicated directions. Creative companies will struggle when they are void of these two important aspects of their growth.
Back to the real example we started this article with. The team in the boat has requested something of the leaders; namely, a view as to their growth path at the company. It’s a great question from the team and it shows they care to be invested there. The team are basically saying, “have I learned what I need to learn, and do I know the direction of this company enough to leave the boat and be placed at a higher perspective by which to guide this company?” How should the leaders answer this question?
The leaders should respond “it depends.” Depends on what? Depends on two things (at least):
- First, the complexity and pace that the river (or flow of information through creative companies) has taken, and
- Second, the team member’s ability to lead this team from a different perspective.
The Complexity and Pace of the River
Just because the team wants a growth path doesn’t mean the company has a growth path to give them. The team’s desire does not alone create a true path for growth. What determines a growth path for team is the fact that the company has changed, is more complex, and the flow of information is becoming too difficult for the leaders to manage on their own. It’s the complexity of the company that determines the need, not the request from the team member. Team members can ask for things that are not right for them to have (all humans do this), or that the creative company is not yet stable enough to provide. This is no shade on the team – their perspective down in the boat is keeping them rather busy just steering the boat, getting the work done, and sometimes bailing water. The team has a hard job they need to focus on, they just have a perspective that is most immediately centered around themselves and their immediate role. That is the way it’s supposed to be and why they were hired – to fulfill a particular role.
Primary Principle: It’s the complexity that the company has grown to that decides whether someone needs to be promoted to a leadership role or not.
The Team Member’s Ability to Lead from a Different Perspective
Again, just because the team wants a growth path doesn’t mean they are personally able to handle the new precipice they will be placed upon. The owner that is ready to promote someone to a leadership position must assess the team’s ability to see from a different perspective. The leader must know that their team member in this new leadership role can see the boat moving on a fast moving river from a higher perspective. What is this perspective that you are asking this team member to now adopt? It is a greater good mentality. Where team members down in the boat doing their important jobs have a clear individual contributor mentality, the higher perspective doesn’t have the luxury to only see oneself in the perspective of their own work. The newly promoted team member must now consider the whole, and often make decisions that are for the greater good of the whole company (which may not be good for them personally). They will have to develop new skills of placing their own role and their own desires lower than what is good for the whole company if their new perspective is going to help the company grow.
Secondary Principle: The team member’s ability to grow into a new perspective of the company, or be taught and led to that new perspective, is a key to the justification of their promotion.
The primary principle comes first – the needs of the business. Does it need a new leader? The secondary principle – the team member’s actual ability – is only determined after the business’s growth path has determined that there is an actual need. Can the team member be taught to lead from a higher, more strategic position in the company?
In summary, businesses should create more complexity, like leadership layers, only if it is needed by the company’s growth. Complexity in creative companies typically leads to difficult situations to manage. Chaos can be a result if the complexity is not managed well. Wise business leaders will only create complexity to manage if it is absolutely necessary (like a faster moving company with more clients or a larger team). So they will balance the team members’ requests for a growth path and make sure they are moving team through promotions that will aid in the dampening of the chaos that complexity can bring, not simply fielding the request of the team when neither the company nor the team members are ready for the promotion.
Leave me a comment and let me know if this resonates with your own experiences or creates even more questions in growing and leading your company.
Jason is the Founder of Thriveal and the Chief Innovative Officer of his CPA firm, Blumer & Associates. He is the co-host of the Thrivecast and The Businessology Show and speaks and writes frequently for CPAs and creatives, his firm’s chosen niche. Jason loves to watch documentaries on just about anything. He lives in Greenville, SC with his wife and their three children.