On paper it might make sense: hire a commercially minded executive who has ridden the tiger at a fabulously successful growth company, who has been there and done that, and low and behold the same result will transpire. Unfortunately, this will rarely happen in practice (at least not in the formative stages – see below) yet it is an assumption that in the sweaty heat of entrepreneurial aspiration is alluring. It follows a predictable path in how we seem to process success and failure. If a project or indeed a company is hugely successful it is all down to us; if it fails it is because of someone else or some external factor. The ‘us’ part in business (most especially in the mythologising realms of entrepreneurship) tends to be reduced to the individual ‘hero’ leader and while individual agency and inspired leadership are critical, this is the most demeaning of fallacies to co-workers – as if they were simple appendages in constructing success. The art of building the successful venture company is a team sport. There can be no leader without a team and no team without a leader.
Of course, if we bet that hiring the battle-hardened veteran (the ‘grown-up’ as some VCs might put it to shepherd the innocents), will put the world to rights then the odds are high that a mismatch is on the cards. No matter how brilliant the manager, if the product sucks there is no salvation. If the new manager has led a team that grew from 20 to hundreds and built revenues from a few miserable millions to tens of millions then it will matter not one jot if that difficult-to-find first market has not been found.
In truth, growth managers who know how to build a company are valuable. They matter but they only matter once the company has located itself in the slipstream of a market that will pull it from being a start-up to a venture scale company and beyond. Before that, there is nothing to build on. All too often the ‘been there done that manager’ is hired too early. Their experience and competence has been forged in harnessing and exploiting the demand unleashed by locating a breakthrough market. Their expertise is in scaling – in driving and underpinning growth with structure and process. Their challenge is not the pioneering and discovery work that must always be undertaken and which so often limits the growth prospects of aspirant company.
Competent growth management will determine the parameters of a company’s success. They enable the scaling process. But they are not the answer to finding strong organic growth or to addressing product design challenges. That is not their role.