A while back I was having drinks with a friend who had, with her team, built a very nice mid-market government contractor. They had started with a client that she had developed a solid working relationship with. Like some new companies, they had left a larger one after a divide developed. The her team was made up of people who were part of the founding team for the larger company. They had become uncomfortable with the increasing pressure and regimentation.
Our session occurred about three years after the new company had launched. They had managed a solid growth and were now generating over twenty million dollars annually. The early years were a heady time for them. “It was wonderful,” she told me. “We felt free of the regimentation that was stifling us. Now, we were masters of our own fate again.” But, lately, things had started to become more difficult for the team. The pressures to grow had pushed them to open new sources of revenue. They tried two approaches. The first was to offer a wider range of services to their existing customer base. The second was to broaden that base and develop new relationships that would allow them to bring in new clients. Neither had gone very well. By the time we met for drinks, the stresses within the team had begun to surface in ways that threatened the stability of the company. Part of her team was making noise about going out on their own and escaping the ‘culture that was developing’.
Déjà vu: “I feel like I am back in the old company but this time I am in the role of the CEO who we had vilified,” she said. “It is almost as if we have recreated the culture that drove all of us mad.” “You have,” I observed. “It is the normal result of success. Your company has grown to the point that is needs to get to the next level.” She clearly did not like my message. “You’re telling me that it is our fault that things have come to this crisis.” “Yep, you did it and now you have a second bite at the apple – a second chance to solve the dilemmas that come from being successful.”
Quo vadis? The challenge that my friend and her team was facing was one that occurs over and over in growing companies. Some years back I had written an article – Battle at the Cottage Gate. In it, I describe the divisions that evolve within a growing company and can threaten its very stability. The battle lines are drawn between the ‘traditionalists’ and the ‘futurists’. My friend’s core team occupied the ‘traditionalist’ position within the company. As far as they were concerned, things were fine – except for the increasing pressures and new difficulties. On the other side were the ‘futurists’. Most of them were people who had been brought in as the company grew. These new professionals were not wedded to the ‘village atmosphere’ that the core team had sought and found when they spit off and founded their new company. They had a new and more expansive vision for the company. The question on the table as we tried to enjoy our drinks was “which way forward”. It was clear to her that she could not maintain the existing culture and grow the company. The practical challenges were just too great and the pressures within her team did not seem resolvable if she attempted to do that. On the other hand, she felt a great obligation to her founding team. She wanted to keep them happy. I decided to wax poetic.
She looked at me peevishly. “I don’t need poetry, I need solutions.” But, I continued on.
“Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”
I could see that here patience was wearing a bit thin so I decided to leave the last verse for a bit later.
“You know, Robert Frost was talking about you and your team. The poem is about your company.”
At that, she looked at me, shook her head and said, “OK, I’ve known you for a long time and you aren’t prone to what you often refer to as ‘daffin’. So out with it. What’s the point and how is the poem about our company.”
“You are at that fork in the road,” I observed. “There is a decision that you and your core team have to make and it deals with the future of your company. The two roads you face will take you in vastly different direction. The one will lead to growth and a task you to meet and master all the challenges of a growing company. The other will lead into a kind of cul-de-sac – French for bottom of bag. You can turn the company into what I call a ‘life-style company and live with your team in the village that it used to be.” I decided that the time had come for the final verse.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Our conversation was the beginning of a process that lead the core team to confront the choices that were facing them. It was the first, and most important, step in the process. Once the issue was finely drawn, she and her team could decide which of those ‘roads’ to take – and, once that was decided, they would build their team accordingly.
There are times when a single realization opens doors to futures and forces a choice between them.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II