Once their startups take off, founders often fall into the trap of becoming managers instead of leaders. They start spending most of their time setting up hierarchies, controlling processes, and dealing with employees who may not understand, or may even actively resist, the changes that inevitably come as a company grows from a handful of employees to several hundred. The excited startup-phase conversations about new ideas and visions for the future gradually give way to more mundane discussions about work flow and processes. In most cases, innovation stalls.
“As the hierarchy grows, the pace of change slows, and what used to take hours or at most, days, now takes months or even years," says Bruce Strong, founder of Cbridge Partners, a strategic consultancy in Cambridge, Mass.
Some founders fall prey to relying solely on themselves to lead change. Others allow visionary change to fall to the wayside while they're absorbed in management details. Instead of falling into either of these traps, founders can learn to communicate with employees in ways that unleash creativity and guide the implementation of new ideas throughout the company. That means having regular and productive strategic conversations with employees about business constraints and how to remove them, says Strong.
In his book Strategic Conversations: Creating And Directing The Entrepreneurial Workforce, Strong cites examples of how organizations — including Red Hat, KBS+, and Rite-Solutions — have created change. He also provides a framework leaders can use to start productive conversations that involve all layers of a company.
While each company is unique, founders should keep the following elements in mind to maintain a creative culture.
Be a present leader.
The visionary has to exercise a powerful influence on how employees view the organization and contribute to it. Think of a highly visible leader like Steve Jobs. Even after Apple became a Fortune 500 company, Jobs was on every employees' mind every day. Before anybody made a design decision, they would ask, "What would Steve do?" (To an extent, they still ask that question today.) Present leaders like Jobs don't only communicate their vision to the board and top management, but also involve themselves in the day-to-day of the company in ways employees can see — and respond to.
Encourage a social-networking mindset.
Hierarchies are good for creating accountability. They are terrible for the free flow of information and even worse for inspiring employees to take initiative. As much as possible, create an environment where people have easy access to information. Replace endless meetings and email chains with social networks like Yammer, Jive or Slack. Publish what's going on and make it as easy as possible for all employees to participate as their interests and time dictate.
Actively build judgment muscles.
Strategic conversations give leaders — and management teams— the opportunity to reinforce the company's vision, and correct employee misunderstandings before they snowball. Leaders can use purposeful conversations to keep employees focused on what matters, and provide perspective on what is working at the company and what is not. By doing so, leaders build a culture where colleagues keep one another on course.
Stay focused on learning.
Smart leaders know a lot, and they also know that there's a lot that they don't know. Employees work directly with customers, partners and competitors every day, and founders need that information to flow up to them continuously. Founders who are eager to learn from below instead of dictating from above will not only make better decisions, but will also lead employees to contribute more and share more information with peers and management.
Including all employees in conversations about the company's path and providing outlets for them to share ideas can give a company a competitive edge. That includes young and new employees, and those working in satellite offices or who telecommute. Social networks can help draw in even the most introverted employees, and managers should encourage everyone's participation. Time and again, these “outlier" perspectives drive innovation.