How to set yourself up for change and growth

The Covid-19 pandemic is proof that random events can present, at the same time, risks and opportunities. Being adaptable and open to change is key to thriving amid uncertainty. Gillian Davis knows more than most the importance of being open to change. She co-authored First-Time Leader, a primer for people who find themselves thrust into a leadership role, and went on to found OverTime, the leadership consultancy. She shares with Lakestar some of her learnings on leadership and change.
Gillian Davis Briefing Article Leadership

I wrote First-Time Leader because after working in my parents’ executive recruitment business I was thrown into the position of being a manager and had absolutely no clue what I was doing. In particular, I did not feel equipped with the skills to empower people and I could not find any advice in the typical leadership books. They were aspirational but not very practical on how to achieve your aspirations. 

I had a lesson on culture and the importance of it when I joined a product studio called Ustwo Games based in London, which is known for a mobile game called Monument Valley. It had grown to about 350 people internationally and it was my job to bring in leadership management into a managerless company.

Companies that are scaling up from scratch can grow so quickly that their founders often don’t have very much experience in leadership. In particular, formal management training does not really address tech-enabled businesses which are fun and interesting. I had to think about how to scale that culture. How do you really empower individuals to realise that they can lead themselves, instead of waiting for the people at the top to make decisions?

Today I work with a lot of fast-growing businesses like WeTransfer, Spotify, MessageBird and help them scale strategically, sustainably and inclusively.

Leadership, change and growth all starts with the founder. But founders themselves need to recognise the changes that they themselves must embrace. This requires an open learning mindset that welcomes people to challenge their thinking and way of working. It also means building a high-performing team around them and role-modelling the future vision. This is where culture is key: for people to deliver on strategy they need to be aware of the ways of working and values of the business. This becomes even more important as companies grow and bring in people from other organisations. If not enough onboarding is done related to the cultural part of the business, a company can end up with some people operating along, for example, the Google way of leadership or the Airbnb way of leadership. Founders need to define their version of leadership and reinforce it with the new hires.

That’s not to say diversity is not welcome. In fact, the leadership team should be diverse so that it offers different perspectives and conducts powerful conversations, both about how to move forward, and what lessons to take from feedback. If a founder builds those dynamics successfully, it will remove bottlenecks to team development and the team should be able to perform even when the leader is not in the room.

This latter point is especially important for companies looking to scale or adapt. A founder needs to teach the team so they have a self-sufficiency. Founders who stay in the weeds answering all the questions instead of asking them, retaining all the knowledge for themselves, actually disempower their team and stagnate its growth because they are not imparting their learnings. A founder can hire people to be in the weeds and do the details, probably better than they can themselves.

Of course, there are some roles that founders must perform themselves: they are often part of the company’s brand and the ones who are up on the stage sharing the vision, and their passion. And if the founders are not doing the holistic dot-connecting work and looking strategically across the business, who is?

Lesson: Your future is in the present

For companies that are likely to scale up it is worth thinking, right from the start, ‘What would our future selves thank us for doing now?’ For example, a company might today be a team of 60 based in one city, but it needs to consider what it looks like if it were in 600 cities. Not all of the culture can scale up and a company can hit pain points when people are attached to how things have been. That’s why even when a company is on a successful growth trajectory there can be a lot of friction when things start to change. So from day one, founders ought to tell their employees how success will bring change and that will require everyone to be adaptable and prepared for that change. They also need to communicate what gives the company its current energy and core strength. As the company grows, some of the more peripheral things or those that fail to scale will have to fall along the wayside.


Lesson: Find your balance

Attempts to re-engineer ingrained behaviours and processes that are actually not capable of being scaled can be very painful, costly and can slow progress down. On the other hand, some companies try to reinvent the wheel and lack the documentation or learnings that went into the early days. It’s a really tricky balance between knowing not to over-engineer processes, but also to make sure things scale when they grow. The founding team needs to establish the fundamentals of management and role model to know what course they are following. That way, everyone is set up for a good scalable process.


Lesson: Keep your house in order

Managers who neglect the basics of performance management in the right way from the start can end up in very expensive conversations. As companies scale, not everyone will go along on that journey, some perhaps because they prefer the smaller environment. If the proper documentation or feedback does not exist, then letting staff go can be costly, especially in Europe thanks to its labour laws. It pays to do the basics right from the start. I try to get people to understand the importance and foundations of proper management before we even talk about leadership.


Lesson: How to lead in a crisis

When the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the world last year, some founders flew into a panic. The nearest thing they likened the situation to was a financial crisis and their initial reaction was to cut costs and lay people off. But it wasn’t a financial crisis. I urged founders to calm down and not to react, but to respond. That’s what leadership is: responding, not reacting. It’s about taking a few breaths and going out to the market to talk to people who may be more knowledgeable. Then the leader can return to their team with information that will help them assess what the future looks like.


Lesson: It’s good to talk

For companies scaling up, there is no beginning or end to the process. It’s just happening all the time. This can create quite an anxious work environment because people are not sure if they’re working on the right thing, or if they’re adding value and they may be reluctant to experiment. But even in this state of flux there are some constant principles, and one of these is good communication. It is the founder’s job to reinforce to the employees where the company is going, how it is going to make an impact and what role each person can play to achieve that.

Few would criticise a founder for communicating the vision too often, and indeed not sharing that message can foster anxiety as people feel disengaged from the decisions being made behind closed doors.


Lesson: How to bond over the virtual water-cooler

Remote working has made our day-to-day interactions with colleagues very transactional. In an office, we have moments at lunchtime or at socials where we can learn a bit more about colleagues. I’m encouraging people to reach out and have 15 minutes of just getting to know a colleague as a human, like they would do if they met in the office kitchen. Finding familiarity and building up rapport with the person you are working with builds a much more symbiotic relationship. Get people to talk and the wall between them falls down.

This article is part of the 'Lakestar Briefing', a periodical publication about Lakestar's portfolio companies and our network of inspiring minds we like to work with. If you wish to subscribe please click here to fill out your name and email.