Managing Hyper Growth So “The Wheels Don’t Come Off”

I was reading the Wall Street Journal this past Saturday and came across an article on page B3 regarding GroupOn’s revenue growth from 2009 to 2010.   For anyone who has been asleep for the past year, GroupOn is a “daily deals” website offering online discount coupons for primarily local goods/services.

According to the article, from $33M in 2009, GroupOn’s revenue virtually exploded in 2010 to $750M. From an employee base of 120 in 30 cities in 2009, the company now has 4,000 employees across 565 cities. Holy cow!

As I read the article, it reminded me of the significant challenges companies must deal with when faced   with explosive growth.  We were faced with a similar challenge at Siebel Systems in 1998 as we  had doubled from 1997 and we were preparing to double revenue the following year (from $418M to $800M). As it turned out, we doubled in 1998 ($813M) and we doubled again in 1999 to $1.7B.

While this is a high quality problem to have, the fact is this type of growth places enormous stress on executives, managers and employees. And, it is a problem that few executives/managers have personally had any experience with.

One of the issues we faced at Siebel was not only with external hiring, but also ensuring that our executives/managers could scale with the business. For example, people who may have been great first line managers were becoming second and/or third line managers in the course of a single year. Not everyone had that experience nor was everyone capable of making that type of transition.

To his credit, Tom Siebel realized that in order to “keep the wheels from coming off” (his words), we needed to put in place a hiring program that would ensure that employee 5,000 was as capable as employee 100. Additionally, we needed to ensure that managers who whose organizations were exploding internally, weren’t collapsing under the weight of new/different responsibilities.

We knew it was an impossible challenge to make perfect external hires and transition every manager from one level to the next. Therefore, we needed to put in place a process that ensured when we made a mistake and hired the wrong person or we identified that a manager was failing that we had a mechanism to quickly identify and rectify the situation.

We needed  a plan to hire several thousand people in a single year. This meant that people who we had hired within the past year would likely be responsible for hiring additional people within the year. These would be people who themselves had limited experience with our “Core Values” and/or our operating principles.

The opportunity to do this wrong and hire a lot of people who would be detrimental to our business was extremely high. This would cost us a lot up front and even more downstream with our customers, partners and shareholders.

To address the the critical challenge of talent acquisition, we put in place a recruiting and training function across the company. Working with HR, each senior executive was assigned a dedicated recruiter who helped to draft the job roles/specifications that aligned with employees who were currently viewed as successsful in their role within their groups.

We held “Super Saturdays”, where we would bring in dozens of candidates and have them interview with current employees and managers in an intense day long process. By the end of the day, we accumulated all the comments on each candidate from each interviewer and assessed whether or not we wanted to make an offer. For those candidates who made it through the process, HR generated an offer letter and the hiring manager met with the candidate at the end of the day and personally made the offer. It was  a long and exhausting day but we were able to make many great hires within a single day without impacting the business during normal business hours.

Then, in each group certain managers who had tenure with the companyand the organization, were tasked with creating a training curriculum that helped to train new employees. For example, in the Alliance organization, we took the dozens of recent MBAs we had recruited earlier in the year and put them through an indepth program where they were trained on how Siebel created and managed its alliances.

We operated a “boot camp” where newly-minted alliance managers learned the general policies of  Siebel Systems (e.g. Core Values) along with organization-specific issues such as the structure of the Siebel Alliance Program, how to write an alliance business plan, and how to work with other functions within Siebel Systems. At the end of the month long training each manager was tested and certified.

Similar training was performed in Product Management, Sales, Engineering, etc.

Consequently, new employees were able to quickly assimilate into the company and understand our Core Values, our policies, learn who were the key people in different functions across the company, how to work across the organization and how to work within their own organization.

In addition, we knew that not every employee – new or otherwise – was going to work out and as important as it was to bring on great people, it was equally important to be able to identify and remove people who were unable to contribute as we needed. To address this very real issue, we created an objective process.

Every employee at Siebel had a set of quantifiable and written objectives which were captured in an internal system we developed. Today, there are products like Rypple that will help companies capture and track their objectives/commitments. As a result of this process, every six months we stacked ranked every employee across the organization and we eliminated the bottom 5-10% performers.

I don’t claim this was a perfect process by any stretch – I don’t believe everyone liked/agreed with this approach or that mistakes weren’t made from time to time where we terminated or kept the wrong employee – but overall this program helped to quickly identify and resolve employee situations that weren’t working out.

Between these two programs, we were able to “keep the wheels on” even in our hyper growth days.

I think these ideas can even apply to companies that only need to make a few hires. Many times interviews take a back seat to the business and are stretched out far longer than necessary. From what I have seen, most start up companies are poorly prepared to execute quickly in this area. Interviews can be disjointed with candidates left wondering who they need to interview with next or where they stand. Offer letters take days/weeks.  

For high tech companies, people are our most precious asset. So, just as it is critical to have a world class development process, having an outstanding hiring process is critical to success.

For those key hires that could make/break a company and who are likely to be highly desirable by your competitors, putting in place a world class hiring process so they join your team vs. someone else’s could be the difference between your company becoming the market leader or an also ran.

So…ask yourself “how good is our hiring process?” Even if you aren’t in hyper growth, are the wheels coming off?

  • Just a quick clarification as I have seen Rypple and know the team. What they are doing has absolutely 0% to do with what Siebel did (or any other companies do) with the performance management process. That being said, having a hiring process is useful, but putting the process (and decision making authority) directly in the hands the people that hire and being consistent with culture matter more.

    • Bruce Cleveland

      Mark: I respectfully disagree. I was referring to an application we built and sold called Siebel Employee Relationship Management – Siebel ERM. To clarify, Siebel ERM enabled companies to cpature and share employee objectives and create a performance/execution oriented company. It was “old school” in that it wasn’t SaaS nor collaborative but it was a V1.0 “performance management” solution.

      • I have seen Siebel ERM as well as other performance mgmt solutions. They are not tools geared to enhance performance or help coach people to become better at their work. That is what Rypple does and which is why I take exception with the comparison with performance mgmt tools. It has nothing to do with architecture and everything to do with purpose and need.

        The rest of your post is valid, I just have to draw the line on shaky technology comparisons. To put it in perspective, I built a “CRM” app for my company in 1996. That does not really merit much of a comparison when bringing up the likes of Siebel or Salesforce however. My app was helpful in a limited way for my company as a stopgap, but what they really needed was a more functional system across all customer touchpoints.

        • Bruce Cleveland

          I don’t think I mentioned anything that actually compared the two so if it came off that way then it was just poor writing on my part. What I intended to say was that we used an internal application we developed then (true) and today companies can use a product like Rypple to capture employee objectives (true). I really like what Rypple is doing with collaboration, et al which is why I gave it a plug.