30 vs. 300

Mar 16, 2017

If your firm is small but you want it to be big, don’t be afraid, just hold onto your values as you also accept inevitable changes.

A company’s growth directly correlates with the company’s culture. Smaller firms usually take on a family feel, while larger firms can have all the coziness of a Costco store.

There’s a significant difference between leading a 30-person firm compared to leading a 300-person firm. I’ve led both sizes and learned that what works in one does not work for the other.

As the leader of a smaller company, you get to know your team very well. Successes are shared with everyone, because everyone has a hand in each project. You know the names and ages of your employees’ children. Births are celebrated because the entire office has been betting on the due date. When one of your employees has a crisis, everyone pitches in to help.

As the leader of a larger company, you’ll probably know the names of your top leaders, but the names below that strata tend to blur. Only the largest successes are shared with the entire company, while the smaller successes are shared within departments and offices. You might remember that Susan in civil engineering is engaged, but you didn’t realize her wedding was two months ago. You may not even recognize one of your employees if you walked by them at the local supermarket.

This isn’t to say that one size is better than another. It’s simply to point out that leading different sized companies requires different techniques.

When I led a 15-person organization, we were an amazing team as everyone was connected with every project. We played off each others’ strengths and accomplished some impressive feats. Yet, despite our cohesiveness, we may have become tired of each other, as we had petty bickering like I’d never seen before.

When I led a 400-person business, it took me about three months to learn the names of those just two levels below me and another six months to learn the names of my employees one level below that. The further down the chain, the less I knew about my employees.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get to know everyone, but my interaction with people several layers below me was intermittent. It took a concerted effort to get to know everyone even at a basic level.

I’d run into people at the grocery store who worked for me and they’d greet me. Sometimes I would recognize them, but wouldn’t know their name. Other times, it was as if I’d never seen them before. I hated that feeling of not knowing everyone on my team.

I’ve had some senior leaders tell me they’re afraid to grow their company because they’re concerned it will lose its identity and stray too far from the founder’s original design. While it’s true that a 30-person firm that grows into a 300-person company will lose some of its initial character, there are plenty of reasons for embracing growth.

Large firms have more resources for servicing larger clients and more ambitious projects. That translates into opportunities for recruiting talent, gaining expertise, and positive branding.

Large firms will likely spin off professionals who would like to start their own firms. Celebrate the fact that your firm provided them with the experience they’ll need to be successful.

Large firms, if run correctly, tend to have deeper pockets and can offer their employees greater benefits. It is in this way that you can do more for the people who worked to make the firm the success that it is.

My point here is to not fear growth. Growth is healthy. Having led both large and small companies, I can’t say I prefer one over the other. They each have their positives and negatives, and if correctly led, a company can retain its original values and stay connected at any size.

Bill Murphey is Zweig Group’s director of education. Contact him at bmurphey@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1189 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here to subscribe or get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.