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13 min read

The biggest variable for growth you're not optimizing for: the growth lead

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This was originally a talk at the B2B Marketing Festival


Three years ago, when I was beginning to write Growth Hacking For Dummies, pretty much everything I read about growth teams was very anecdotal storytelling about their amazing combination of left brain and right brain, and how they're so analytical and so creative.

To be honest, this information was useless to me. I couldn't use it to understand who I should bring into my team, or what the impact of having such a person on my team would even be. It was strange that in our data-obsessed field, we didn't have any data about the people that make growth happen.

Fortuitously, at that time I was working at a company called The Predictive Index, one of whose products is a behavioral work style assessment. I thought this would be a great place to start quantifying the behaviors of people in growth teams.

I don't want this to become an article about The Predictive Index, but I think it's important to show you what the assessment measures and how. The foundation on which it rests is that we're all born with certain drives and things we just need to do. These are expressed as behaviors both in our working lives and outside of work.

If you take a look at the infographic, you'll see plus and minus signs at the bottom. That’s because the behaviors this assessment looks at – dominance, extraversion, patience, and formality – are measured on a continuum. The further away you are from the midpoint, the stronger that behavioral preference or aversion is.

When you do the assessment, you can fall into one of 17 different patterns like the one above. There's no right or wrong. There's no best or worst pattern. There are just certain patterns that fit better with certain roles. I found this to be a really simple way to start mapping the behaviors of great growth leads and better understand them through data.

Hypothesis #1: Growth leads have a specific workstyle pattern

This mapping led to my first hypothesis, which is that growth leads have a specific workstyle pattern.

I'll be honest – this was informed by my having worked with Sean Ellis at GrowthHackers. He coined the phrase growth hacking; he's the godfather of the field. My hypothesis was based on the idea that most growth leads would be like him, and so, of course, I made him do the assessment. Once I knew his pattern, I had a hypothesis for what the overarching pattern would be.

The three most common work styles

I surveyed a great swath of growth leads – people all the way from Australia to the US, small companies, big companies, SaaS products, etc. I was surprised that not just one pattern, but three patterns started to emerge. At first, I was a little bit confused, but as I delved deeper, it started to make a lot more sense.

My initial hypothesis was that, like Sean, the best growth leads would be in the Maverick category. Mavericks are innovative, outside-the-box thinkers and undaunted by failure. I was sure that this is what all growth leads would be like, but it turns out that there are two other common patterns.

People who follow the Individualist pattern are really persistent. They're almost like bulldogs. This made a lot of sense once I started to think about it. If you've spent any time in growth, you’ll know that this field involves running a lot of experiments, most of which fail. In a job where you're getting smacked in the face with failure day after day like this, you need people who are resilient and can just keep going.

Finally, you have the Persuader. The cliché is true: growth is a team sport. There is no magical growth hacker sitting in a corner, waving a wand. You need somebody to rally the team around the best opportunities. That’s the Persuader.

As you dig deeper into the other characteristics of these types, you start to find that they have a lot in common. The biggest characteristics they share are that they're all rule breakers and they're very results-oriented and goal-oriented. You certainly need those characteristics in somebody who's leading growth.

Hypothesis #2: Growth leads’ workstyles need to focus on innovation and agility

All this led me to my next hypothesis, which is that, because you have goal-oriented rule breakers on growth teams, growth leads’ workstyles need to focus on innovation and agility. I based this hypothesis on a couple of bits of research, as well as my own experience on growth teams.

To test this hypothesis, I started with the competing values framework. This has been around since the 60s, and it says that as a team starts to focus on a particular way of working, there's a diametrically opposite way of working that, by definition, it can no longer focus on.

For instance, if you have a team that’s all about doing new things and breaking rules to drive innovation and change, it can’t focus as well on a formal work style with set processes for the entire team to follow.

Then you have the other set of diametrically opposed workstyles: you can either be internally focused, or you can be externally focused. In one workstyle, collaboration and teamwork are the most important things. In the other, they're all about getting results for customers, and that's what matters most; it doesn't matter how they do it as a team, or even if they do it as a team.

Team cultures

These competing values are expressed as team cultures, which can be broadly split into four styles: cultivating, exploring, stabilizing, and producing.

The cultivating culture is very much based on cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork. Achieving success as a team is really what matters most for this style of organization. While this is important, it’s not the predominant culture of growth teams.

More than anything else, you can find the exploring culture in growth teams. This is all about being nimble, flexible, adapting to challenges, and always pushing forward, even when things are uncertain.

You've also got the producing team culture, which is very assertive about hitting goals. It's all about action, action, action all the time. This culture may or may not be team-oriented, but team members are encouraged to go off on their own and do things to deliver results.

Lastly, there is the stabilizing style of culture, which is very conservative. In this culture, there's a right way to do things and there's a process to follow because that's what leads to success.

Again, there's no right or wrong when it comes to these cultures. What matters is what's appropriate for your team or your company depending on the stage they’re at.

Growth team culture: Exploring

The growth team, by definition, is a very explorative kind of team. It’s nimble, flexible, creative, and fast-moving. The cliché that done is better than perfect applies completely to growth teams. The entire focus is on just doing things, finding new ways to do them, experimenting, iterating, taking risks, failing, and learning from those mistakes.

One of the main values of a team like this is novelty. New ideas are encouraged and valued. New products, features, and ways of working are completely within the remit of this team, so being original and taking inspiration from external ideas are highly valued.

It's also a team that likes to be up-to-date on what's happening because they know that in this field if you're not on top of what's happening, you're obsolete next week. This is a non-negotiable for a team like this.

By definition, then, if you're constantly looking out for new and better ways of doing things, you have to have an open mind about when to experiment to see if new approaches have any potential for success.

This sort of team also values flexibility because what's true today might not be true tomorrow. Things can change on a dime, and new demands will be thrown at you all the time. Look at what's happening right now, with the recession and layoffs in the US. These are the kinds of things that a growth team would not be daunted by at all. A lead that works in this manner would add great value to such a team.

The behaviors that you’d see in a team like this would be very nonconforming because it’s not the kind of team and certainly not the kind of lead who would rest on their laurels. It's always about what's new and what's better. The more unique the approach, the better.

I always get a lot of flack for using the word enthusiastic because everybody is enthusiastic when they're on a team. Still, I’d like to make the point that the team needs to be enthusiastic and passionate about new ways of doing things. Having this positive outlook – because, again, you're gonna be hit in the face with failure day after day – is a non-negotiable for a growth team. You can't be reactive; you have to be enthusiastic when the moment calls for it.

A good growth team is also restless. You have to move fast to constantly find new approaches. There’s no sitting around in a team like this.

Finally, a team like this is venturesome. In growth teams, you're constantly testing. You're always looking for the next big swing you can take. That’s a behavior that’s encouraged and manifests in teams like this.

Team culture is expressed in the team’s work style

Irrespective of which quadrant your team’s culture falls into, that will be expressed in its work style. These team work styles map very well to the competing values framework, whether it's focusing on innovation and agility, results, process, or teamwork. Whatever that culture might be, the person who's leading the team is going to drive it.

To test my hypothesis that growth leads’ workstyles should focus on innovation and agility, I mapped all of the workstyles of all the teams I spoke to onto this graph. My hypothesis was quickly proven true – the default workstyle of the growth leads that I surveyed, by and large, fall into this innovation and agility quadrant; they’re hard-wired to work this way.

Now, that is not to say that the people who don't fall into this innovation and agility quadrant are not great growth leads; in fact, all of them are. What it means is that people who are not naturally hardwired to focus on innovation and agility have, through some combination of training and self-awareness, spotted the delta between their natural work style and the way they need to behave for the team to be successful.

This work style has a knock-on impact on several aspects of the teams and how it functions. First, it impacts the way the team communicates. Then there's a secondary impact on the way the team takes action. The third impact is on the way the team makes decisions. All three of these facets play an important role in allowing growth teams to be as innovative and agile as they need to be.

Impact on communication

I didn't expect the results I got when I mapped growth leads’ workstyles to communication styles. I thought I'd find one being more predominant over the other, but it turns out that there’s almost an even split between the telling style and the persuading style.

The prevalence of the telling style is no surprise. Growth teams are not about being quiet and mousy – opinions are going to come loud and fast. This team needs to be very assertive; there’s no wishy-washy dilly-dallying about anything. It's all about speed. We talk about something, we say we're going to do it, we do it, and we move on.

That the persuading style is also part of the split makes sense too. If we go back to the three biggest work styles that showed up in growth teams, one of them was the persuader style.

It's not just about persuading the team or the entire company to do what you think is best, but about rallying the team around the best opportunity. You need somebody who can get everybody on the same page. Let them have that productive conflict and then get the team along for the ride.

Impact on team action

If you have growth leads that are focused on innovation and agility, they will, by definition, lead the team in a way that is innovative and challenges the status quo. It will be very fast-paced, and they'll be willing to try anything and everything. The crazier the idea, the better; the bigger the swing, the better, because you just never know until you try it out.

There's even some research out there that has shown that, generally, big growth wins come from doing radically different things. Small changes like altering your button colors don’t lead to meaningful changes upfront. It's the big, crazy ideas that lead to big results. You need the right kind of person to lead the team for this to become a default behavior.

Impact on team decision-making

The last impact of having the right kind of growth leaders is on how the team makes decisions. A strong growth team is not one that says, “Okay, you have a great idea, let's go do that.” The decisions have to be informed by data.

In this type of team, there's no shame in sharing your opinion – even if you’re afraid it might not be a good one – because there’s a culture of productive conflict where everything is challenged. That helps the team find the best thing to go after and then rally around it.

Questions to identify great growth people

Now that we have a sense of how having a growth lead focused on innovation and agility impacts the team and the way they work, let’s look at some questions we can ask to identify people who embody the heuristics we’re looking for.

The first question I always like to ask is, how do you balance the need to get things done, versus finding better ways to do them? This tells you a lot about not only how biased for action people are, but also how they prioritize. If growth is about anything, it's about challenging the status quo, and we have to find new and better ways if we’re going to find those breakout growth opportunities.

The second question I like to ask is, how do you handle situations where you need to deliver something with very few guidelines? Because, again, being in growth is all about finding new ways to do things. There is no playbook for anything – you're building the playbook. The notion of building the plane as you fly completely applies here, so you need to know how comfortable somebody is with figuring things out as they go.

The third question (and this is very relevant to our current macro climate) is about how people respond when they have to change directions quickly. A lot of budgets are getting cut in half. Some people would freak out in a situation like that, and some would say, “This is fine. I'll figure it out.” It's important to know how they handle the changes that are thrown at them because that tells you whether they are resilient and able to figure out new strategies on the fly.

The last question I like to ask is, tell me about a time when your solution to a problem was very really different from what had been done before. This is going to help you identify the type of person who is not content to rest on their laurels and is unafraid to rock the boat.

With these questions, you start to get a sense of how much of a rule breaker someone is, how goal-oriented they are, and if they can be persistent through trying times. These are the kinds of qualities that don't come through when you're going just on external reputation or even what you read on their resume. You need a better sense of how they work, and how they’ve handled specific situations that they'll have to deal with in this role at your company as well.

Hypothesis #3: Growth leads’ strengths alone are not enough to execute on their teams’ strategic priorities

The last thing I want to share is my third hypothesis. This is key because when a lot of people see my research on the work styles of great growth leaders, they're like, “Great! Sean Ellis is a maverick. Let me hire 10 people like him!” That's probably a recipe for disaster, to be honest. You need a well-balanced team.

After I surveyed growth teams to learn about their team cultures, I asked them 20 questions to uncover their strategic priorities. Each of these priorities maps to a type of organizational culture.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found an even distribution of strategic priorities for the growth team. Yes, they need to focus on innovation and agility, but they also need a process for how they go about it, and so having people who over-index completely on moving fast and breaking things is going to mean that the rest of what the team needs to do suffers.

As a practical example, if I hired a data analyst for my growth team, and they were like, “Let's go! Done is better than perfect!” That just wouldn't work. For data analysis, I need somebody who's disciplined about results and getting the right numbers, so I'd probably hire somebody for that role who fell into the results and discipline quadrant.

The growth team is not a team of one. You want to be cautious about over-indexing on any of these workstyle quadrants because a high-performing growth team is one with all its bases covered.

You need somebody at the head of the table pushing the team to move fast and do everything it needs to do, but at the same time, the rest of the things the team needs to do can’t fall off the table. You need other people with complementary work styles so that the growth lead can do what they've been hired to do.

Final thoughts

That's everything I have to share for today. The people part of growth has become more and more important to me because, as vital as the process is, without the right people on board, the process is never going to be executed as well as it ought to be.

Written by:

Anuj Adhiya

Anuj Adhiya

Anuj Adhiya, Growth Advisor at Globalwork

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The biggest variable for growth you're not optimizing for: the growth lead