The learning curve Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

Leslie Braksick is truly passionate about her job at Continuous Learning Group, a consulting firm that helps companies develop human resources strategies, processes and behaviors.

But even with that passion, the company’s founder and chairman knew she couldn’t do it all, and her greatest challenge became changing her role as a leader so that others could grow as the company evolved. Braksick says it was a difficult but necessary step for her company as it has grown to 152 employees in the 14 years since its inception.

And that growth shows no sign of stopping as CLG grew revenue to $30 million in 2006, a 26 percent increase over 2005.

Smart Business spoke with Braksick about how taking that step to change your role and being a model for other employees can help a company grow.

Q: What is the hardest part of leading a growing company?

The leader having to change his or her role to match the evolving needs of the business. In a small company, there are a lot of craftspeople who do the work themselves, and they love it, and they do it well. As you grow, you become a manager of other craftspeople, in addition to maybe still being a craftsperson.

Eventually, you become a leader who manages managers of craftspeople. So as a leader of a growing company, you may, in fact, be moving further away from the very thing that brings you joy and passion, that got you into the business to begin with. You have to not only be OK with that, but you have to embrace that to ensure that you’re being the leader your organization most needs to grow.

Q: How can leaders deal with the change in their leadership role as their company grows?

Be clear about what problem you’re trying to solve, and then solve it. Sometimes issues mask themselves as other issues.

The struggle could come from the fact that you have inadequate talent inside the organization, or that the great talent you have inside the organization lacks strategic clarity as to what they should be working on.

Or maybe they have that, but they are not feeling motivated to do what needs to be done. Or maybe the tools they’re asked to work with are somehow inadequate.

Maybe the leader doesn’t want to be leading others; maybe he or she would just as soon be back as a craftsperson.

Q: How do you manage growth so that it does not spin out of control?

It’s key that you have some leading indicators that let you know how the business is doing so that you’re not surprised or caught off guard. It could be something as simple as number of inquiries or, if you’re doing any kind of marketing, what kind of hits you’re getting.

You need to manage those leading indicators, so if you see prospects coming into your sales pipeline, you need to staff up or make changes so that you’re ready to deliver on that.

Q: What are some things that can stop a company from growing?

Dissatisfied clients or customers. If people are highly satisfied, that doesn’t guarantee they will repurchase. They have to be truly delighted, they have to be off-the-chart pleased with the product or service, or you’re not guaranteed repurchasing or referring. Unless you have truly delighted clients, you’re not assured growth, and you are not guaranteed that you will continue to see the growth.

That’s followed by having great people inside your organization. It matters a lot that your customers and clients feel good about interfacing with your people and that they feel people are responsive to their needs and wants and care about them.

We look for people who are humble, who can be empathetic with the needs of the people that we serve. We’re not looking for people that are boastful or think they are right all the time.

And yet, we look for people who bring a real passion and a spark to the workplace, people that are excited to do a great job.

Q: How do you know if you’re headed in the wrong direction?

Heed the warning signs. If things are not right, there are usually signs they are not right. Don’t wait until it gets bad to intervene and talk about it. We are highly imperfect, but as long as we’re talking about it, it’s really all I care about.

It’s when people stop talking and telling a leader honestly what’s happening, what’s working and what’s not working, when the leader gets in trouble and, ultimately, when the organization gets in trouble.

Leaders need to remain open and inviting and understand what the warning signs are telling them and not wait until there are issues. Don’t wait until your top person walks out the door because they’re miserable. You’ll see signs a lot earlier than that.

HOW TO REACH: Continuous Learning Group, (412) 269-7240 or www.clg.com