By Todd Gibby WG’97, CEO of BoardEffect
Growth is awesome. This is true in any business setting, but particularly so in an early-stage environment. For entrepreneurs, growth is a wonder drug that cures most visible ailments, and countless hidden ones. But, like anything, too much growth (too aggressive, overextending operations) can also create problems for our evolving organizations. As a result, we focus a lot on how to manage growth – how to tame the same wild beast that we strive tirelessly to unleash. We obsess about how to prepare our organizations to perform successfully as they grow – in short, how to “scale” a business. Conversations about scale tend to focus on systems, processes, people, and business models…each of which is important. But, in my experience, one thing rises above them all as far as criticality in scaling: mindset.
So what exactly is “mindset?” There are many definitions, but the simplest ones are “a predisposition to act” or “the way in which someone approaches, or responds to, a situation.”* Like individuals, organizations can have a collective mindset that influences how they function. A few types of organizational mindsets could be: customer-centric (i.e. a “customer-centric mindset”), or a mindset oriented around accountability, collaboration, innovation, experimentation, or results. Mindsets correspond to culture, values, and environmental factors; and they should help a business differentiate itself from competitors. The bottom line is that establishing a shared mindset within a growing organization is a powerful way to achieve scale. Why?
Let’s think first about founders / entrepreneurs / companies’ early team-members. These folks frequently wish they had the ability to clone themselves. Often this is because they have uniquely valuable skills. But more so, it is because the start-up world is so unmanageably fluid. Even the most dynamic company leaders have finite bandwidth and a limit on the number of places they can be at any given time. As a result, they quite simply either need to delegate responsibility to others, or impede company growth. But can those folks be truly trusted with safeguarding the fate of the company? They’d better be.
It’s extremely difficult for entrepreneurs to replicate their skills in others. It also is practically impossible (and, to many of us, philosophically repugnant) to try to create policies and procedures that dictate how employees should react in every business situation. And technology can only help so much in terms of making us more informed and efficient. Rather, the only thing that truly scales is a shared mindset.
New employees won’t have the same skills as the founder / CEO. But they absolutely should share views on what is important for the business, what the organization values, and what behaviors are desired among its team members. In this way, every member of the team can think like the founder and can solve problems with the same world-view, or mindset. At the same time, each team-member can contribute a unique and creative—sometimes dissenting—perspective, while channeling it through a commonly embraced mindset. So, growth-oriented leaders should examine how to attract people with the mindsets and the courage to leverage, supplement, and challenge their own.
Processes, structure, and systems absolutely matter; but getting the mindset right is the first order of business for any business looking to scale.
*I would like to acknowledge and thank Peter Duffy, Group Director of HR at DMGT for his collaboration on this piece, and for sharing his related “Draft Paper on Values, Cultures, and Mindset.”
Bio: Todd Gibby WG’97 is an entrepreneur and current CEO of BoardEffect, the leading governance software platform for boards of directors. Previously, Todd was the CEO of Intelliworks, an education technology company which successfully exited to Hobsons, where he later served as President of the higher education division. Earlier, Todd held several executive leadership positions at Blackboard, including EVP of Operations and SVP of Sales. During his tenure, Blackboard grew from $2M to $185M in revenue and emerged as the global leader in e-Learning software.