Stuck and Struggling: Navigating the Whitewater

“What you’re going through is normal – it’s called growing pains.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve said something along these lines to business leaders who suddenly find themselves in a swirl of “issues” as they add new business and employees.

WhitewaterIt’s like paddling down a river, when suddenly, coming around a bend, you’re thrown into some turbulent rapids.

You’re in whitewater.

I unabashedly borrow this “whitewater” imagery from Les McKeown’s superb book, “Predictable Success” (Amazon affiliate link), which so helpfully explains the phases that a company goes through as it grows (and declines). If you want to understand company growth, and need wise counsel to gain perspective along the way, I highly recommend reading Les’ work.

In fact, I pull up this key image from the book all the time on my smartphone and show it to people experiencing business growth pains:


In the early days of a company, it’s usually a struggle just to acquire customers, get the work product out the door, and get paid. Many companies never survive those first few years.

But then, there can be a time (let’s say, between 10-50 employees) when we’re past bare survival. There’s momentum, we’re having some fun, it’s an all-for-one-and-one-for-all environment, with everyone pitching in and wearing multiple hats. It’s almost like a club.

Then you round the bend and hit the whitewater.

This growth phase is when the previous, informal, not-so-organized structures start to creak and crumble. Leadership by charisma or command-and-control isn’t working anymore. Size and scope require specialization, delegation, and operational process. It’s a whole new leadership challenge, moving from informal club to structured company.

I’ve experienced this (in two small companies that I worked for), and seen it in many others (by the way, this process occurs in organizations of all sorts, not just small businesses). What is now required to move through whitewater is a different way of leading and thinking. It may require a gradual change in personnel (not all people who do well in early struggle and fun phases can make the leap to a structured environment). But when you hit the rapids, here is the perspective most required, first and foremost:

Recognition that this is normal, and that you (as a leader) are not stupid or incompetent for going through what is, in fact, an unavoidable phase of growth (this is why I’ve positioned my consulting practice to serve as a Growing Pains Advisor).

Some leaders and companies never make the transition, as Les points out in his book. And, in fact, some micro-businesses are specifically designed NOT to reach that size. But for companies reaching a critical mass of size and revenue, it’s a major change management challenge that can’t be avoided.

How to navigate the whitewater?

And really now, be honest – you wouldn’t want to paddle down a river that was ALL placid and slow-moving, right? I’ve done a lot of canoeing, and the roar of the rapids ahead, which leads to that pulse-pounding anticipation – that’s why we’re on this ride!!

Previously in this series:
Stuck and Struggling: The “Can’t Let Go” Leader
Stuck and Struggling: Direction Attention Deficit Disorder

Here are some of the upcoming topics:

  • Misplaced Persons (people in mis-matched roles)
  • Operational Vacuum (insufficient structure/process to enable growth)
  • Growth by Accretion (the tendency to take on new tasks and clients and people, without a clear plan)
  • Bad Clients/Wrong Clients (self-explanatory)
  • Inconsistent Revenue Model (something I and many others struggle with)
  • Broken Internal Communication (multi-faceted topic)
  • Commodity or Poorly Packaged Offerings (differentiation issues)
  • Scalable/Configurable vs. Custom Offerings (the craft-work, time-for-money trap)
  • Foggy Marketing/Messaging (failure to communicate clearly with clients and referrers)


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Rapids photo credit: Hutt Valley Canoe Club via photopin cc

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