avatarDaphne Tideman

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Slow Growth Doesn’t Make You a Bad Head of Growth

Overcoming insecurity and redefining success in slow growth periods

Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

“It’s not good enough.”

“What do we need to change?”

“Who’s to blame?”

I sat in a small meeting room, scared. We hadn’t hit targets for several months, and that fast growth of May, over 25%, felt far away.

I also felt insecure. I was Head of Growth, after all. The title made it clear enough: this was my responsibility.

Yes, we had grown as my title implied we should, but not enough. 8%, 9% monthly revenue growth… A far cry from the double-digit rates we’d gotten used to.

The other four people in the room, two founders and two senior team members, all looked at me.

I needed to have answers.

“Are we focusing on the right KPIs?”

“Do we have the right team?”

And the million-dollar question:

“Why aren’t we growing faster?”

In the months that followed, I had endless sleepless nights, self-doubt, and low energy plaguing me.

I had been told I was smart for years at school, university, and the start of my career. It was my beacon of light in years of bullying and insecurity. I had my intelligence.

When that conversation happened I had six years of growth experience… Why could I not crack it? I was working so hard:

60-hour work weeks, 10+ hours learning per week, 100 books read per year, and endless conversations with experts. It wasn’t good enough.

Was I bad at growth?

Recently, someone on a small panel held by Growth & Company called it “Head of Shrinking”; no one wants to be Head of Shrinking. He was right.

When it becomes Head of Shrinking, the result is usually that someone gets fired.

Bye-bye, Head of Growth.

Bye-bye, Head of Marketing.

So, while this didn’t happen to me, the fear was there. I wasn’t quite Head of Shrinking yet, but Head of Slow Growth didn’t have a great ring to it either.

Once again the question ran through me.

Was I bad at growth?

Moments like this have plagued my career. Whenever I don’t quite manage to grow a company as much as I want, whether as an advisor or leading the growth, I question myself. All the successes fall to the background muted.

But does slow growth mean that you are bad at growth? And why does growth feel this acute pain more than any other role?

I believe it doesn’t make you bad at growth. Let this be a smoother to the harsh words that may echo the back of your mind as a growth lead or maybe even as a founder. But also a reminder of what our responsibility is in such moments.

The truth was I wasn’t bad at growth, but I was bad at handling slow growth. So much so that in the years that followed, I intentionally took on clients of slow growth. To become better at approaching such moments. To reduce the control of the fear.

Was I bad at Growth?

The title is partly to blame

When your company’s customer care is bad, who should you look to?

The customer care lead.

Who should you look to when your company’s website is filled with bugs and issues?

The development lead.

Of course, you can say CEO or founder, but let’s stick to the first thing that comes to mind.

Ok, one more round.

When your company isn’t growing, who should you look to?

The growth lead?

No. You should look at everyone. Everyone’s end responsibility is, in some form, the growth and success of the company.

But that isn’t how it works. You look to the person or people who have growth in their title. And if you lack a growth team, you might look to marketing. They are meant to be bringing in new customers, right? Even if your retention rate is terrible, marketing still often gets the blame.

I go by the title of Head of Growth or Growth Advisor myself. Mainly because I lack a different word for it.

Marketing is one small part (and I hate it when growth is equated to marketing), and the same goes for product.

But the title does shoot us in the foot. It makes growth a department rather than a multi-disciplinary approach.

Company culture is the other suspect.

The other reason I and so many people have felt this way is the all too common blame culture.

Founders aren’t always naturally managers; they fall into that responsibility, and it is another skill of 100 they are expected to be good at to grow their startup to success.

Yes, it is a key one, but many founders were never managers before they started leading.

Doing their best, they can’t help falling into the natural tendency I have seen all too often.

“Who is to blame?”

“Who is responsible?”

“Do we have the skills needed to make this happen?”

It creates fear. The feeling that a person is to blame rather than an underlying reason.

If people are the reason you aren’t growing, you have a hiring problem, not a growth problem.

9/10 times, I’ve found the reason for slow growth to lie elsewhere: Seasonality, messaging, channel changes, over-dependence on a channel.

My fiance told me when something goes wrong in his team, his manager asks not “Who is to blame?” But “How can we solve this and prevent this in the future?”.

He trusts who he has on board. He trusts they didn’t mean for that to happen. He’s not saying let’s ignore the past, but focus on the future.

Sadly, this culture is absent in most organisations, resulting in less risk-taking when risks are crucial to turning growth around.

Final suspect: the skills we need to excel

To be good at growth we need to take on the responsibility, almost be an entrepreneur ourselves, passionate and driven to drive results. To push through when things don’t work.

The exact skills that make us exceptional Head of Growths make us terrible Heads of Shrinking. It is hard to be both: to take full ownership, but not believe that our identity is dependent on growing a company.

I was taught at the first company I worked full time, extreme ownership: believe that you are responsible for the results and look at what you can change to improve the results.

The challenge? I was responsible for something that wasn’t fully within my control, but felt like it should be.

In the months that followed the conversation I talked about I felt a rollercoaster. Good sales day? Joy, excitement. Slow day? Disappointment, fear.

Eventually I realised it wasn’t sustainable and not necessarily true.

A great Head of Growth doesn’t just have high growth months. They can’t just pull a Harry Potter style move and ‘accio’ growth towards them.

Instead, they take a step back and analyse the internal and external factors. They ask questions. They bring people together. They over-communicate what they are doing to try to solve it and from there, experiment.

They focus on what is in their control, but also helping the organisation drive change on a larger scale.

You don’t have to always have high growth months to be a strong Head of Growth, but you do need to approach those growth slumps in the right way.

Moving forward as a sometimes Head of Shrinking

So does that mean I no longer feel those down moments when we miss a target? No, I definitely do.

But I turn it into positive fuel, try to get excited and dive deep into the data to find the opportunity.

To remind myself to not get defensive, but curious

  • What did we see happening?
  • What could we be doing better?
  • What do we need to work on?

I’m not bad at growth, I just can’t control it 100%.

What I can control is how I approach it and choosing to be in a ‘we’ environment where we work together to solve it.

Startup
Growth Marketing
Growth Mindset
Growth Strategy
Entrepreneurship
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