Most snow and ice management professionals crave growth. Right? Well, maybe not everybody. There has always been a percentage of business owners, especially in the trades, who purposely constrain their business size to require only themselves, one truck, and maybe a helper. These individuals went into business with neither the desire nor the intention of building an empire, though many do make a good living.
At the other end of the spectrum are those entrepreneurial spirits for whom rapid, even explosive growth is the only acceptable outcome. Most business owners likely fall somewhere between these two extremes, seeking to gain more customers, expand their business footprint, beef up the bottom line, and in some way, shape, form, or grow their business.
The path to business growth is challenging at times, difficult even, especially if approached in a haphazard fashion. However, focusing on end results, defining and sustaining the culture, and not only fleshing out a long-term vision, but sharing it in detail, you can sustain real growth with organizational integrity for years to come.
Therefore, the pursuit of business growth is a worthwhile endeavor for a variety of reasons, the greatest of which is survival. But even sustained growth is not without challenges and pitfalls. The obvious is cash flow, which management must manage carefully to avoid the nasty rubber-band effect caused when rising payables precede corresponding receivables. Sometimes referred to as “growing pains,” that lag may cause a variety of problems if not planned for in advance.
But beyond the financial aspect, real growth brings at least three challenges to the organizational dynamics of a business in the areas of processes and procedures, company culture, and brand integrity. Let us consider these in detail.
Processes and procedures that seemed efficient and effective when ownership ran the entire business from a single room may lose their luster as the operation grows larger. For example, I once worked for a snow removal company whose first office space was inside of a repurposed garage. Everybody’s workspace faced an exterior wall, everybody could hear what was going on because they were all within a few feet of each other, and the entire office operation could hold impromptu meetings by turning around and facing one another. A de-facto system of checks and balances existed, the team followed processes to the (probably unwritten) letter, and no balls were ever dropped simply because everyone, including the CEO, always knew what everyone else was doing at any given time. A few years and millions of dollars later, the same operation occupied an entire floor of an office building. The old passive information system had faded away. In response, some tried to use technology to remain aware of everything – literally everything, just like the old days – but that process faltered as the operation continued to grow.
Sometimes the obsolescence of a procedure or of an entire process will occur so gradually, nobody realizes the increasing inefficiency until it triggers a real problem. Then common sense takes over, along with damage control. So how does one avoid something they do not see coming? In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the late Stephen Covey advised us to: “Begin with the end in mind.” One way of utilizing his principle in this instance would be to focus not on sticking to a singular procedure or process but to focus on the desired outcome and continually adjust the process as needed to keep getting the same result. Focusing on the result instead of the process allows for creativity and flexibility, two key strengths of a growing business.
Going back to my example, that company’s information management system, role assignments, and organizational hierarchy all evolved to continue achieving a consistent outcome. No one person knew every little detail anymore, yet everybody knew what they needed to.
Every company has a culture. It is the organizational equivalent to a human’s personality. It is a living system of beliefs and values that ideally flow from the mission and vision of that business and always, always flows from the top down. A company’s leader is the keeper of the culture there, always. Even a business whose owner does nothing to set one will still end up with a culture, good or bad, and it will permeate everything that goes on in the organization. As a company grows, its leadership must take decisive steps to ensure that the intended culture thrives and grows right along with the business, otherwise that culture will fade from the lack of attention.
And by decisive steps, I do not mean write it down, put it up on the wall, and mention it from time to time at meetings. That is not a culture; that’s lip service. Enforcing the desired culture means setting rules and guidelines for customer, vendor, and employee relations that management must follow end-to-end. Seek out and select employees, primary vendors, and key clients on cultural fits.
The best example I can cite for prioritizing organizational culture is my current employer, Chicago-based Diaz Group. Since my arrival here in 2018, this company has quadrupled its revenue and more than doubled its office staffing, yet the company culture has become stronger and more stable than ever. How is this possible? Because the owners and leadership have refused to give an inch on matters of culture, period. Business may be all about negotiation but in their eyes, a company’s culture must be non-negotiable.
By necessity, a company must interconnect its culture and brand. One could say that the internal culture begets the outward-facing brand, each becoming a reflection of the other. Put another way, a company’s culture, which flows from its mission and vision, contributes to the brand, which we can define as the total of one’s experience with that company, its product(s), or service(s). Each of those experiences are “touchpoints,” and each touchpoint either builds the brand up or tears it down. There is little neutral ground.
If a company’s culture fades, it is a fair bet the brand will follow. Consider this: a one-person operation has the closest thing possible to total control over the customer experience, and therefore the brand, because the person serving the customer has a personal stake in that customer’s satisfaction. As the business grows, so does the organizational “distance” between the owner and the customer. This does not automatically mean the brand suffers. It does mean that to remain effective, management must convey the brand through the human chain that connects the owner to the customer, no matter how long that chain becomes.
Easier said than done, right? You may have experienced brand degradation firsthand with some local business that you patronize. “Yeah, the company has sure grown over the years, but things aren’t the same as they were when Joe used to take care of me personally.” I am sure Joe would be very unhappy to hear this. I am also sure he never intended to water down his customers’ experience, but it is a hard fact that owners and employees do not always look at things the same way. What is the solution? Help the employee see what the owner sees and what it means to them.
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