Book review: Survival to Thrival

December 12, 2019
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Survival to thrival book for founders

When your startup is starting to grow from a small team to 50, 150 or even 450 people in a short period of time it’s not the same company anymore. From mere survival it’s time to start thriving with its own set of challenges.

This book is a practical and rather hands-on guide for founders, investors and executives that are in the middle of enterprise startup growth. What used to work before starts to slow things down or just break things down.

When the company grows its people need to change, shift roles, unlearn and learn new skills, and sometimes just leave if it’s too hard. None of this is obvious or easy yet it’s crucial for success.

A company CEO needs to be able to zoom between micro, macro and everything in between while having a mindset of confident optimism and total paranoia at the same time. In the beginning the CEO resembles Captain America / Wonder Woman type of superhero that is all over the place and totally hands-on.

The next phase is Captain America and the Avengers where a team of superheroes band together to tackle the growth issues while everyone have their special superpowers. The third unlearning and transition phase for a CEO is to become the Professor X and the X-Men where the focus is on the next generation of talent and the overall big picture.

Corporate types coming to startup leadership roles might prefer to build their startup using sequencing that is linear. Unfortunately growing a company is not a straight- forward process and too much of a single thing usually causes a new set of consequences that drain resources, focus and execution at the wrong time.

An open-ended spiral is another way to see the scaling challenges with just right type of balancing act. There will always be more bottlenecks but they are the necessary pain points of growth, and overdoing may be more harmful than the trial-and-error process of finding a proper balance.

The book gives tips how to swim in lanes (hit and plan milestones) and be aware of huge signal generation that happens in executive and board functions per default. Doing, not doing and just being are each a signal to the organisation and set examples. Similarly being a ruthless decision-maker but yet sensitive of the consequences on people of these decisions is something of a must. The company must come first but not at the expense of the people who are making it to happen.

How to be motivational and emphatic as a CEO? You’re also all alone and under assault from all directions ranging from customers, board, market and the team. This is the everyday struggle of never comfortable life of a growth company CEO.

When the company grows the previous superheroes need to unlearn their previous working modes and become super-leaders for the new superheroes. This is a mental battle where ego, emotions and self-perception are at test. For someone used to do things it’s hard to let others take care of the details and re-define one’s worth for the organisation. Yet, this is exactly what is needed when the headcount becomes too big for the old organisational ways to work. Each transition point from survival to growth and finally to scale have their own peculiarities. Challenges are different whether you’re a business, engineering or financial type of a leader.

What happens when a previous superhero becomes a mere mortal along the growth of the company? Sometimes the best but a hard choice is to let some people go if they cannot unlearn they previous roles and accept new ones. Company culture becomes a crucial success factor the bigger the startup becomes. Avoiding the bozo creep by hiring too fast just to hit the numbers is as important as having a clear, consistent and strong culture where people know where their stand and what is expected of them.

Overall, the book’s message is that growth affects everyone, and everybody needs to change or be changed. Nobody can expect to have a stable or consistent career path when the requirements of the growth company change yearly if not quarterly. Unlearning becomes even more important than learning new things. Buckle up – there’s turbulence ahead.

  • Christophe Claeys December 16, 2019 at 1:00

    Spot on.

    • petri December 16, 2019 at 2:47