Growing Pains

Surviving the Growing Pains! – Managing Staff in a Period of Growth

One of the common features of many of the businesses we come into contact with is that they are experiencing a period of rapid growth. They have a proven product or service, they’re doing the right thing by their customers and they’re reaping the rewards of their efforts – terrific!

But life is not always wine and roses as they say, and a number of businesses going through this phase also experience “Growing Pains”. Growing pains can develop in any area of the business – it could be that product or service quality is beginning to suffer, or it could be that your IT, accounting or communications systems are not keeping up with the increased pace. It might also be that you’re having difficulty in attracting and retaining quality staff to enable you to continue to provide the level of customer service that has contributed to the success of your business.

A further area that seems to be a common source of growing pains relates to the management of staff. When the business has a small team of 5 or so, it’s generally possible for the business owner to manage all aspects of the business – marketing and sales, customer service, product quality, finance and admin and of course overseeing the day-to-day activities of staff. Once the business starts to grow however, and all of a sudden there are 15, 20, maybe even 30 staff, it becomes an increasingly difficult task for any business owner to oversee all activities with quite the same rigour.

In terms of managing staff, the team will also tend to become more diverse as it increases in number – people come in with different skills, interests and a different way of doing things. Underlying conflict or tension between staff can become more of an issue, and you can’t possibly hope to know your staff as well as you know the original few members of your team. As one small business owner said to me (yes, he really said this); “It was all right when it was just me and the boys – 5 or 6 of us, we knew what we were each on about. Now I’ve got guys with more degrees than a thermometer and I’ve even got a few shielas in the office! I just don’t know how to talk to them anymore”.

One of the possible answers to this sort of dilemma could be to implement a supervisory layer within the business structure, so that the supervisors take on the day-to-day management of staff and allow the business owner to focus on business development and more strategic issues. On the face of it, this seems an easy thing to achieve – the supervisor will be better-placed to get to know staff, resolve issues and utilise their skills and time in the best possible way, and you get to attend to those other things that will really make a difference to your business.

The actual experience of some business owners that I talk to however, is rather different – they find that the person they have selected for the supervisory role doesn’t have the skills required, does not fit the culture of the workplace and/or maybe didn’t really want the job to start with (this latter one can be a particular issue in the case of internal promotions where the owner suddenly declares one of the team to be the supervisor). Alternately, they might find that the supervisor isn’t sending the messages to the staff that the business owner wants them to send, or else the supervisor may have his or her own way of managing (or not managing) staff that is contrary to that of the business owner. At its best, this can lead to confusion and perhaps a small decrease in performance. At its worst, it can result in conflict, anger, frustration, and a significant loss in productivity and staff satisfaction as people just don’t know what is expected any longer.

So, if your business is experiencing growth and you are seriously thinking of adding or expanding the supervisory layer within your structure, be sure to;

  1. Select the right person – Don’t make the mistake of achieving a short-term gain just to end up suffering long-term pain – I have seen several notable cases of people being put in the wrong position for the wrong reasons, with disastrous consequences (eg. “They’ve been here the longest”, “They are a family member”, “I don’t need that person in their current role anymore, so it will save money if I simply put them in this role”, “We just need someone from outside”, or even “They don’t have the skills for their current job, so let’s try something different”).
  2. Set clear expectations – Be very clear about what you want from them. Your supervisor(s) will from the point of their engagement be the primary link to your staff, so they need to be clear in terms of what you want them to do and how you want them to do it. Importantly, whilst they don’t need to be a clone of you, they do need to be generally supportive of the way you do things and they need to be enthusiastic about their role in your business. Once you set the expectations, it will then be important then for you to loosen the reigns a little – this in itself can be a real challenge for business owners experiencing growth, but it’s something that will need to be done in order for the business to realise its potential. Any anxiety about loosening the reigns can be lessened by setting clear expectations and also following steps 3-5 below.
  3. Support them – Whether they are recruited from within your business or externally, they will need your support and guiding hand, particularly over the first few months. It may be that they are an experienced supervisor who needs to quickly come up to speed on your business systems and processes, and/or could benefit from your support in terms of assimilating with the team. Alternately, it may be that they are a relatively inexperienced supervisor who needs some external training as well as your help in managing tricky staff issues that may emerge in the early weeks. Support might also take the form of improving your people-management systems and processes so that they can supervise their staff in an effective manner that is complementary to your own way of doing things. This may include for example, the development of position descriptions so that everybody is clear on what is expected of them, implementing a code of conduct, a grievance process and a performance management system so that your supervisors have some structure (and accountability) in terms of managing their staff.
  4. Hold them accountable and responsible – Don’t make the mistake of putting them in the role and leaving them to it. Regularly check on progress to ensure that they feel supported, but also to implement a culture of responsibility and accountability. New and young supervisors can easily find themselves being everybody’s best mate, which in time can make their ability to perform their supervisory role extremely difficult. They need to know the importance of the role that you require them to play, and be accountable for their own performance as well as that of their team. If they’re not meeting expectations, address the issue directly and promptly – don’t let it fester. Remember, staff will in most cases over time begin to take their signals from the supervisor rather than you, so if they are sending the wrong signals, you may well find yourself with far more problems than you originally had!
  5. Recognise, reward and keep them.….or don’t – If they’re meeting expectations, be sure to recognise their efforts, particularly in the case of those with little supervisory experience. Like most of us, they will want regular feedback, so give it to them. It’s also an important part of making them feel part of your team. In an expanding business, the performance of supervisors will directly and significantly impact on business performance, so invite them in and take them on the journey with you. Continue to develop them and be sure to recognise and reward their contributions as appropriate – good supervisors can be hard to find, so do what you can to hang onto them! On the reverse side of the coin, if they’re just not performing after a reasonable time in spite of your support and guidance, it may be that you need to move them on – the fact is that the wrong person in such a key position will only act as a barrier to future business success.

Implementing or expanding the supervisory layer of your business may well be the answer to maximising the potential of your business, but it can also be fraught with difficulty. Follow these few tips however, and you will significantly increase your chances of success.