Scaling up through people

by Adina Luca, November 25, 2018

Scaling up in the right way is the key to the growth of your business. In B2B professional services, your growth capacity lies in your people’s skills. Unfortunately, scaling up through people is the most difficult thing to get right. You are dealing with the most unpredictable and sensitive resource of working life – people.

Having more brains around you is better than having fewer. But if you and your team have been working together for too long, your collective intelligence can end up being less than the sum of the individual parts. How come?

At the beginning, you hired someone who was close to you and was willing to take the risk of being employed by a start-up. You also had a lot in common: maybe your respective employment histories, maybe growing up together or a strong friendship. You basically started “cloning” yourself through the people you hired.

How do you know when you and your current team need a fresh input and when it’s time to stop scaling up by bringing in clones of yourself? When the similarity in views and experience starts preventing you from finding new solutions to old problems. Or worse, when you notice that throughout all this time you have been the only person able to suggest some sort of a fix for your problems. And those problems remain.

Every company has recurring issues. When you are looking at a situation and you are no longer able to fix it together with your current team, it means you and your team have reached your proverbial limit of incompetence.

Let’s make something clear right now: you need to hire people who are smarter than you are, more knowledgeable than you are and more opinionated than you are. If you think there are no such people in the world, then you have a different problem and this post is not for you.

Become a manager
A good entrepreneur who is gradually turning into a manager has become a poor deliverer. When you have become unskilled at delivering your service at top quality levels, you know you have taken on the role of manager instead. As one wise entrepreneur put it: I could do [the service that his company provided] at a push, but it would be lousy job and I would rather let my team do it.

Based on the nature of the service you provide (see Scalability criteria), add on the functions your business needs by bringing in experienced people who have complementary skills. Look for new team members who know things you don’t.

If you are still the top deliverer after the first five years, you are arresting the development of your service. The entire business remains stuck at the level that you yourself are able to deliver. Ash Maurya, author of Running Lean, puts it like this: As we enter our own scaling phase with the company, my task is to fire myself as the solution and introduce other solutions that progressively get us to deliver value to ten times as many customers at the previous stage. (see

Let others do the hiring
If you have ended up becoming a poor deliverer, you can no longer hire delivery talent. Let your best delivery people do that. We know this is counter-intuitive, as you will feel you are losing control over who walks into your company. But part of growing up is also letting go.

Find people who disagree with you
Cherish the opposition. Entrepreneurs are a force of nature, they tend to be strong-minded and domineering. It is difficult for employees to voice disagreements. Cherish the ones that do.

Find people who are different
We have walked into companies where the top managers all had the same hair style. They were perfect clones of each other and constantly in each other’s pockets. While that provided a comfortable and family-like environment, any suggested solution that did not fit the pre-existing mindset was deemed to be inappropriate. And their decisions never produced any significant change: it was always more of the same.

Find people who can do certain things better than yourself
Can they communicate better? Are they better organised than you? Do they seem more in control of the work than you do? If so, great.

Ideally, find people who have worked in the industry before
These people can compare approaches and can transfer learnings. Sure, they can be annoying with their constant wondering out loud about your methods and their comparisons with their old workplace. But they can see through the cracks and the made-up-as-you-went-along solutions. So pay attention to their comments. Never say: that was there, this is here – it is a statement that kills the potential learning transfer. Ask: how did you solve this in your previous role? You don’t have to do it the way others did, but having an awareness of alternative solutions is priceless.

You might have been able to scale up your business quickly for a while, but that does not necessarily mean you did it in a sustainable way. You will know you did not get it right if it shrinks back on you – and you find yourself back where you started with your old small-and-trusted team. A new generation of hires have just left because they did not understand the way we do things here.