Bob Elfanbaum | Crain's Sacramento

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Bob Elfanbaum

Background:  

World Wide Technology Asynchrony Labs is a St. Louis-based information technology consulting firm specializing in areas including business innovation, application development and mobile computing. Formerly known as Asynchrony Inc., the company was acquired by World Wide Technology in 2015.

The Mistake:

Not having a leadership plan in place that accounted for rapid growth.

Our company really started in 1999 as a dot-com when rapid growth was expected and we were all trying to chase this dream of how fast we could get to market and how fast we could go to an IPO.

We had a little stumble when the dot-com bubble burst, but we continued to grow very quickly afterward. We never envisioned how we could grow beyond 50 based on the three or four of us who were leading the company. I would say we spent a lot of energy on process and how we’d create a culture of people who were self-managing and self-directing. I think we created a really awesome culture that evolved into a neat company because of grassroots innovation and grassroots leadership that emerged.

But I think, all along, the core leaders continued to plug the gaps as problems happened with customers, with deliveries, with culture. So we continued to grow and we expanded the leadership team. But I would say it got to the point where it became really challenging to the company because, as you keep growing, it gets too unwieldy for a small group to somehow plug all the gaps.

We’re investing in leadership proactively and consciously versus thinking leaders will grow just through giving them experience.

The Lesson:

We got acquired by World Wide Technology, which has a mature leadership program. That gives us a structure, a curriculum and an approach to really investing in leadership. The other thing is we grew almost 100 percent between about June 2015 and the end of 2016. It was the pain being felt by customers and employees as the result of that massive growth without enough leadership, plus the structure from World Wide Technology, that told us we needed to fundamentally do something about leadership.

Today, what we're doing — rather than expanding the senior leadership team — is really figuring out how to create leaders across the organization by taking the time and money to focus on leadership training and mentoring. This allows us to grow, not a layer of leaders, but a large group of leaders that not only serves us today but serves us as we continue to grow.

The senior management team is actually still about six, but we have a whole layer of other leaders beyond that who manage projects or manage areas like design. Just as importantly, we've created probably another layer of maybe 30 or 40 leaders in charge of smaller things, and we're really investing in their skills. The investment we're making probably goes to maybe 50 or 75 and, on the cultural level, we’re also really trying to give people some level of leadership across the organization.

We’re investing in leadership proactively and consciously versus thinking leaders will grow just through giving them experience. I think it's this concept of deliberate investment in a culture and a leadership plan that allows an organization to expand beyond the vision and control of those initial founders and leaders.

Especially for a small business, it is a tangible investment you make in growing leaders. It's a hard-dollar investment. So, No. 1, an organization has to believe in it enough to make the dollar investment. You have to believe in its value and your organization has to believe in its value. Going through the motions but not having an impact is almost more devastating than not doing anything at all.

Bob Elfanbaum is on Twitter at @bobelf, Asynchrony Labs is at @asynchrony and World Wide Technology is at @wwt_inc.

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