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The past year has seen massive challenges and disruption, yet some businesses managed to not only buck the trend but create massive success with new products and services. Enterprises that managed to successfully pivot and grow are grappling with the question of scaling to maintain those gains in the long run.

The challenges of scaling are numerous, and one of them is taking areas of strength or pockets of excellence and spreading embedding them throughout the organization without messing it up.

In their book ‘Scaling Up Excellence’,  Robert I. Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao assert that when scaling, leaders should strive to spread a mindset, not just a footprint as their organization expands.

Scaling up excellence has various facets, some of the ones highlighted by Sutton and Rao include:

Eliminate destructive beliefs and actions

For excellence to take root, the best leaders and teams spread constructive beliefs, behaviours, and practices from those who have them to those who need them. Pixar is an example of a company that has scaled successfully. Sutton and Rao attribute the movie studio’s success in substantial part, to the founder and president’s skill, humility, and grit. They observed that a crucial element of the Pixar mindset is that they don’t seem to be afraid of failure, but do fear producing work that is merely good or just OK. “There’s a palpable pride that permeates the company, along with a nagging worry that, if they don’t remain vigilant, mediocrity will infect their work,” says Sutton.

Don’t let negativity take root

It’s scientifically proven that mean people’s impact is five-times stronger than those who are nice. The best leaders stamp out this kind of negativity by being quicker to give warnings and they also tend to be more well-liked by their staff for taking this stand.

Eliminate (or move) the bad

Firing isn’t fun, but Sutton says it can be necessary when confronting harmful behaviour. Another perspective is to consider whether the offending person is really a rotten egg or is simply in the wrong job. Sometime, transferring someone to a different team or role can result in better behaviour and more positive contribution.

Bring influencers into play

Identify the members of a group with the most influence, train them on what is considered negative behaviour and ask them to model the opposite. Sutton says one executive had an issue with distracted smartphone use during meetings. He recruited two people to stop looking at their phones and to also pressure others to do the same. This curbed the diversions and everyone put off their devices during meetings.

Maintaining a long term focus

According to Sutton, people tend to behave better if they view themselves from the future, looking backwards, reminding employees to keep striving towards something that is really great, versus doing what is “good enough” now, helps excellence to spread as an organization scales.

Avoid creating teams that are too big

According to Sutton and Rao, four is the optimal team number. Going any bigger than that, you see performance declines exponentially. That’s why Navy SEALS fire teams have four people; that’s why the average consulting team has four people; that’s why the average restaurant reservation in the United States is four people,” said Sutton.

As companies scale and teams grow in size and lose the connectedness of the smaller, origin group, deliberate effort to maintain a culture of excellence is required. With new personalities and dynamics at play, leaders need to learn to constantly articulate a shared understanding of goals, culture, and what it takes to succeed.


By Maanda Tshifularo: CEO – SuperLead Advisory

Scaling up requires careful assessment of every element of your company, backed with a strong Strategy and experienced leadership. We excel in helping organizations grow and build the systems needed for sustained success. We are ready to talk to you about your next steps. Contact us at maandat@superlead.co.za

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