Optimizing Your Team for Hypergrowth with Karen Walker

Karen Walker is an executive coach and consultant who advises CEOs and senior leaders on thriving in hyper-growth. She has worked with clients including Aetna, AWS, Pfizer, JPMorganChase, and BMC Software, as well as Inc. 5000 startups.

Karen is also a board advisor, keynote speaker, and the author of No Dumbing Down: A Guide for CEOs on Organization Growth. As employee 104 at Compaq, Karen helped lead the then-fastest growing company in American history, growing it from $0 to $15 billion in revenue.






Inside This Episode

  • The Foundation for Hypergrowth
  • The Power of “Up and To The Right”
  • A Simple Question to Drive Performance
  • No Dumbing Down: Optimizing Your Team
  • The Key to Keeping Top Talent
  • The Two Key Skills for Visionary Leaders
  • Building a Collaborative Team
  • Dealing with a Toxic Team
  • Zen and the Art of Thinking Bigger

Subscribe for More Key Conversations for Leaders

John Ryan
You're listening to key conversations for leaders. This is episode number 39. Welcome everybody. In today's episode, we'll be discussing how to optimize your team for hyper growth. with Karen Walker, we'll be talking about the foundation of hypergrowth, a simple question to drive performance, optimizing your team and the art of thinking bigger and much, much more.

John Ryan 0:22
Leadership is about vision. It's about creating a vision and sharing that vision with others in a way that inspires them to walk with you towards its fulfillment. Along the way, leaders encourage, motivate, guide and even challenge people to bring their best each and every day. And it's all done through conversations. That's what this show is about better conversations for better leaders. Hey, everybody, and welcome to key conversations for leaders. I'm your host, John Ryan. And today we have a very special guest Karen Walker. Karen is an executive coach and consultant who advises CEOs and senior leaders on thriving in hyper growth. She has worked with clients including Aetna, AWS, Pfizer, JP Morgan Chase, and BMC Software as well as Inc 5000 startups. Karen is also a board advisor, keynote speaker and the author of no dumbing down a guide for CEOs on organization growth. As employee number 104. At Compaq, Karen helped lead the then fastest growing company in America in American history growing from zero to $15 billion in revenue. Welcome to the show, Karen.

Karen Walker 1:28
Thank you, John. I'm super excited to be here. Thanks for asking.

John Ryan 1:31
Thank you. I want to start off by asking cuz, you know, employee number 104. That's an incredible thing to have in your pedigree, you know, what was it like to be employee number 104?

Karen Walker 1:42
Yeah, well, at the time, it was just employee 104. Right. We had no idea what was coming. We didn't we hadn't shipped any products, yet. It was 100 people sounds like a lot. But it really wasn't. I mean, we, we sort of always thought of ourselves as a big company in the formative stages. But, you know, I would say that it was it was almost undescribable, to be in a company that grew to $111 million in revenue, its first year, and then to something three, something five, something fastest to a billion, you know, and to be able to be in a situation where you could grow and develop your skills, right to manage an organization and to lead in that kind of environment was just unbelievable. And in part, and we'll talk about this later, I'm sure it was just that there was so much to do, and how to figure out what to do and what not to do and how to hire the right kinds of people and continue to work cross functionally. And it was it was amazing. I can just I knew at the time it was it was unusual, but I didn't fully appreciate it until I left.

John Ryan 2:53
Well, that certainly is an example of hypergrowth, I would imagine. And that's one of the the areas that you focus on is helping companies to kind of manage and lead that type of development. Can you tell us about what hyper growth means to you? And what are some of the challenges that go along with it?

Karen Walker 3:10
Sure. So I think about hypergrowth, if you think about the S curve, right? hyper growth is that steep part of the S curve. And if you're fortunate enough to find yourself on it, you know, you want to get all of the effectiveness that you can out of your organization to get you to the, to the top, or at least to the point where you can grab on to the next curve that's coming up. So I've been working, I left Compaq. You know, so it was $15 billion, and about 17,000 employees. And at that point, although I had a lot of history there, it was like it was another big company, I had serious sort of lost for me the magic, right, or the reason that I joined. So I took some time out to figure out what I wanted to do next. And we did New York, I took classes at Columbia, I had a consulting job fall in my lap. And I took it, I took advantage of that. And I really liked consulting. So I've been working with primarily, but not exclusively, as you said in the intro tech CEOs for the last couple of decades now, on how to navigate that. So I work with the leaders of the organization and their teams primarily. And, you know, there are a number of things you have to pay attention to, but it's, at some point it comes down to execution, right? If you're in hyper growth, that means you found a product market fit. And so I'm not here to help you with that, although we can refine it. I'm here to help you create those internal strategies to support the external growth that you found. And so making sure that we have sort of alignment for goals that the teams are working effectively, and that there is accountability in place for the right things and that you create a culture a sort of debrief and learn because so much is happening so fast, you need every opportunity to learn from that.

John Ryan 4:55
So kind of unpacking a little bit what you're what you're saying in terms of the hypergrowth It's not that you come in and help them find that ultimate market fit that gets them to run go into that S curve. But once they're there, how do they make sure that they're following the the Northstar to keep on going? Because imagine that that's a critical threshold. And if they don't do it, right, that they actually can slide backwards and have capacity issues and demand issues everywhere.

Karen Walker 5:23
Yeah, that's exactly right. It's about it's about delivering on the promise you made your customers, right. Because if you're on that curve, you have made a lot of promises. And internally, you need to make sure that you're able to, to deliver on those promises, you're going to continue your growth. And it's not easy. There. There's, you know, there are many pitfalls along the way. So I'd say you describe that quite well.

John Ryan 5:46
Thank you. Thanks for putting it out there so easily to understand. With all the experience that you've had in your career, I imagine he feels like when I look at your resume that you've done just about everything. You've probably seen everything out there, of course, you know, to some degree, is that where the idea of up into the right come from comes from? And can you tell us a little about what that means to you?

Karen Walker 6:07
Sure. So I'd say oh, no, I haven't done everything yet. constantly looking for for new challenges, I have been very fortunate to be in the places I was in and be given the opportunities. And then of course, there's been a lot of hard work to take advantage of those. But a lot of that had to do with opportunity as well. But up into the bright. You know, I've been looking for sort of what summarizes what I try to help people with, and explore with people. And it's a phrase I use all the time, in part because I I'm an engineer by degree. So I come at my work a little differently than a lot of people do I do for a living. And I think in two by twos, right? I'm always trying to by two matrix for this, that or the other. And of course, the place we always want to be is that upper right hand quadrant, right? Always when you talk about growth, or you talk about, you know, financial sort of any metric you're trying to go up into the right. And so I was just fortunate to stumble on that I think as a as a slogan for the kind of work that I do. And then I've developed a framework around

John Ryan 7:17
it. Like that, when I initially you know, saw it, I wasn't sure exactly what up into the right men, can you? What are the mind? Tell us about the the horizontal axis? Yeah,

Karen Walker 7:30
Yeah. Yeah. So a two by two is a very simple way to look at two different concepts and oppose them, right? And then that easily throws out four different quadrants that you can talk about where things are either more or less, higher or lower, optimized or not. And when you have those four quadrants, then it's really fairly simple to say, What do I need to do in each of those, depending on where I find myself to move up into the right to the quadrant that is the place where all things are optimized? It's what Gartner research calls the Magic Quadrant, if you follow any of their research, I'm sure some of your clients do, you know, you want to be in that upper right hand quadrant, because that's where all the magic happens.

John Ryan 8:18
So the concept of opening the right is not just for any one dimension for the x and y axis, it's for multiple models. Initially, you know, I thought of this Stephen Covey, you know, important and but not urgent, but it sounds like it works with, you know, the Boston Consulting Group matrix and all those other things that are out there. Because typically, you want high high, right, you want high experience and high results for your clients, I can see that transportability in that sense. So thank you for clarifying that. It's not just the as I was doing more research into your work, it's not just just the good for you Good for others model. It actually is cross models as well. It sounds like

Karen Walker 8:58
That's right. You know that the whole thing about up into the right is there's no such thing as a steady state. Right? We we fool ourselves. But even if you think you're not changing, everything around you is right, your clients change your market changes, your employees are changing.

John Ryan 9:14
You know, Karen, your latest book is called no dumbing down. Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to that theme?

Karen Walker 9:20
Yes. So a lot of my work has to do with teams and helping teams be effective, and no dumbing down it's a response to teamwork, as usual. So teamwork is usually something we've all experienced, right? You get assigned to a team or volunteered for a team. And what occurs is you get there. And it's sort of not a place where you can work to your potential right to work in a way that truly optimal. And as a result of that people don't don't want to be on teams or don't believe in teams. And if you think about the team in general, team can only work at the level of the lowest performing member on the team. And so to Often your a players have to dumb down to that lowest performing member. And it's not always that members fault. But sometimes they were not the right person to be on the team or they don't have good teaming skills are there all kinds of reasons for that. But it is true that your a players do not want to work in places where they can't perform to their highest potential. And so no dumbing down was born out of a hope that we could help people and teams optimize for potential, and so that the teams could could perform in the way that that they had the potential and the chance to the format.

John Ryan 10:37
Because it seems like the downside of the dumbing down of the team is that you're a players are going to leave because they're not seeing the opportunity. They're not seeing the challenges that they're normally looking for. Is that really the end product? if you're if you're not being careful around that concept?

Karen Walker 10:52
That's absolutely right, that eight your a players will not hang around if they if they can't work to their potential. And because of that, you'll have turnover and it won't be the turnover you want. It'll be turnover over the players that you'd like to keep.

John Ryan 11:06
That's a really fair point. Yeah, not all turnovers is bad turnover. What do you recommend for leaders to kind of identify the blind spots they have on their team or in their approach to their team?

Karen Walker 11:19
Yeah, so blind spots are really interesting, because we all have them. Right. And we don't know what they are to. The one thing if you think about that people really worry about is the What don't I know, because if we know about something we can prepare for in some ways? So it's a really good question. I'd say there are four things in particular that I think people should really pay attention to around blind spots. The first thing is really to sort of seek out diverse points of view, that it is so important that you hear from people who've had different experiences that you've had, who have different backgrounds that you do, maybe come from different industry that you do, but to really seek out those differences. Secondly, get some personal development feedback. I typically do 360, with the people that I coach, and I cannot tell you how many blind spots how many aha moments we have uncovered.

Karen Walker 12:18
And if you do these 360 in a way that's developmental, rather than, like your review, people will give you honest feedback, because they know it's in the spirit of helping you develop and, and because of that, it can help you reduce blind spots. Another thing would be to incorporate some data driven monitoring processes into your system, right? So that just because you think things are going well does not mean that they are or even just because you think things are going off the cliff does not mean that they are, but they have some data that can help you with that. And then I think the other thing to do is just to, to make sure that you're constantly sort of, for me, I think curiosity is really important, because it will help you uncover sort of new areas, in understanding more will always help you decrease your blind spots.

John Ryan 13:10
It seems like there's a really big important theme there. One, the Curiosity when they bring in late later has to be part of the other three, two. So looking at it accurately getting feedback from your environment, looking at the data, and not just your own subjective opinion, and having that curiosity, and I love the idea of doing it from a developmental perspective, not just from a review perspective, because it's for their benefit, not just for justification of some promotion or not. And the other sense, is curiosity and the seeking diverse opinions. Does that also go in the vein of making those ultimate important complex decisions? Or are there other factors we need to bring in when considering those important decisions that leaders make?

Karen Walker 13:51
I definitely think there's some other things. Yeah, if we think about important decisions, leaders have to make it at its base, everything's change management. And so having a good grounding in change management process is really important for leaders. You have to get the people in your organization bought into you know, your vision, where you're going, having them understand how it impacts them, and make sure that they understand what they need to do in order to make that, that vision of success. And when you're growing, there's a lot of change, there's a lot of ambiguity, and you have to help people deal with that. And so I think that's a really important framework for people to use. The other thing I would say is that you have to develop your team. Too often leaders get caught up in having to do everything themselves, which they know is not sustainable, and it's not scalable, but it's hard to let go of stuff. And so what you want to do is make sure that you've put a team around you and in fact a team around them that can grow as the organization grows, so that you can offload stuff and they can offer offload stuff in the organization can still scale.

Karen Walker 15:03
And then lastly, to make sure that you consider process, right. Part of what happens when you're on this high part of this part of the S curve, the hypergrowth. part is that there's so much going on that you mentioned the Stephen Covey Eisenhower box earlier, we never get to the important, right, there's, there's no end of urgent to do. And so we have to create time to think for ourselves. And, and in doing that, to think about what what is going on in a way that we can sort of think of it as a utility, where we can put a process around it. So we don't have to think about it again, it can just run because we don't want to get and what happens for big companies sometimes is they get stuck sort of at one end of this, this continuum, I think, call it the ESOP continuum, standard operating process or seat of the pants. And so we can get stuck in one place with the other big slow companies often have like way too much over here standard operating procedure, that they try to reply to every situation. And startups often are way too far on the interior seat of the pants. And you want to pick the right spot for the situation that you're in, not be wed to one answer or the other. So I think that's also super helpful for leaders as they try to deal with complexity.

John Ryan 16:18
So sounds like you really have to be mindful of where you are in that SRP continuum. And how the adaptiveness to respond as the environment changes as well. Exactly. Yeah. When developing your team and in developing that trust, because I imagine a lot of the reasons that leaders and managers hold on to those decisions and those activities is because they haven't really given an opportunity for their team to show up. Right? What What advice do you have for a leader that's hesitant and holding on and trying to do it all, even though they know that they can't?

Karen Walker 16:50
Yeah, so you know, the The first question is, why, why are you doing that? Right? Well, there's something in the leaders of this, that the leader thinks it's in their best self interest for them to be holding on. And maybe they don't trust the team yet. Maybe the team hasn't shown that they will do things and get the kind of results the leader wants. Or maybe it's just a bad habit. But first, you need to do a little self introspection, and see if you can figure out why you're holding on. And then secondly, I always tell people to try new behaviors in low risk situations. So if you're going to let go of something, do not take the biggest, most important thing that's sucking up all your time that you might want to get rid of. All right, don't give that away first, but but try with something smaller, so that you can start to develop this level of trust and understanding with your team that they'll they will be able to pick things up and carry them on. And then you can move on to delegating larger things, but a lack of good delegation skills, not only will it be bad for your organization, but it's bad for you, you know, you become a single point of failure. And at that point, you're not promotable, and you are holding your organization back from being able to scale and grow.

John Ryan 18:06
I love that idea of giving them smaller tasks that are not necessarily the the make or break tasks that you have on your plate. That's a really strategic, simple way to get started and developing that trust. When there's a toxic team situation, which I know you've done work, and maybe you've come across more toxic teams than you care to, to mention, what if anything can be done? Is this a situation where there is a possibility for redemption? Or do you have to kind of cut your losses sometimes?

Karen Walker 18:37
Both. I think, first just to talk about, briefly, what is a toxic team. So teams that are toxic, you know, sort of no one when you see one, but they have a lot of unresolved conflicts, right? In a complex in our resolve, that will actually where the team down, or secondly, maybe have a lot of poor interpersonal skills, because the skill set needed to be a good team member versus being a good individual contributor are not the same. There's overlap, but it's not the same set of skills. And so if you have, if you don't have good productive team behavior norms that can also be toxic. And then lastly, sometimes in teams, you see members who take advantage of what I think of as a flywheel, right. So there's putting the minimum amount of effort to keep that wheel going around. It's also a dumbed down team.

Karen Walker 19:27
But if you're if you're on a team like that, and you're a high performer, high achiever, that's not a place you want to be. So if you see those things going on, what can you do? Well, understand the team will only improve if the team members want it to improve, right? So if it's just you, and no one else is unhappy with the situation, nothing's going to happen with that team. But you can, you know, if they, if they, I would check in with the team and see how they respond to the idea that performance could be improved. And see if you can get a team commitment to dealing with the three issues that I mentioned earlier. And then, if the team won't do that, they're not interested in changing their behaviors, you know, I then have to think that it's time to think about leaving the team. And if that's the case, it can be hard because you have to be aware of any office politics about leaving the team. But hopefully you trust your manager enough, that you're able to have a conversation there about potentially other ways that the objective could be accomplished using fewer resources. And if the team is really that bad, I'm sure there are multiple other ways that we can get the needs of the team charter met.

John Ryan 20:38
So it sounds like you have to hit it head on, have those conversations, if you're not the manager or leader with that person with the team themselves, see if you can get by in towards a positive end. And if not, you have to do some soul searching, look for other opportunities. And it may be maybe part ways or find another path for you, like many people do, of course, okay. Because if you're stuck, if you're a high performer, a member, and you're on a team that is toxic, certainly you're not going to be bringing your best. And I know that from this is one of your passions is actually helping people to bring out their best. Obviously getting out of a toxic environment or improving that would be one way, what are some other ways that leaders can bring out the best from their team members?

Karen Walker 21:19
Yeah, such an important leadership skill, right? developing and growing your team. Because without that, I think when times get tough, you don't have you don't have much left. So I'd say the first thing that leaders should do is a be aware of your responsibility to develop your team, I often just use a very simple mind box that looks at performance versus potential. And if you look at the sort of nine boxes that fall out of that, again, we want to be open to the right, high performance, high potential, right? If you if you if you use something like that on a consistent basis, you can you can draw out what's your responsibility as a manager to develop people where they are, right, this is not a one size fits all answer.

Karen Walker 22:03
If you have someone who's high potential low performance, that's a different answer than someone who is low potential moderate performance or something like that. Right. So. So I think using that kind of a system can be super useful. And then I think something that's very useful that we don't do often enough is to ask the employee what they need to perform better. The whole idea, right, it is, and to make sure that they have the feedback that they're not performing up to par right now. I think it's Kim Scott and her rant radical candor, book and talk where she, where she talks about people get their very best feedback on the day you fire them, right. So that's, we don't want to do that. We want to get people think back early, so that they can do something about it. So making sure the employee knows that they're, that they need some development, ask the employee what their what their goals are, right? And, and then you can help develop them to move towards their goals. But if there are current issues that need development for the current job, ask them what they need, ask them what standing in their way. And most of the time, they'll tell you, and it's something you could probably do something about.

John Ryan 23:15
Well, it sounds like you definitely need to have some trust, and obviously have the employee's best interest at heart as well and be willing to have that that kind of conversation. You know, conversations are certainly a theme here on key conversations. And I wanted to know if you don't mind me asking, you know, when you think back in your career so far, what has been some of the more profound conversation or the most profound conversation if you can remember that it's impacted where you are today?

Karen Walker 23:40
Yeah, I'll give you two but I'll make them brief. The first was I went to a conference, that interface touring, I don't know if you know of Ray Anderson, but he was, it was a big leader in sustainability and flooring. carpet in particular, this is the world's largest floorcovering company, is highly toxic. And then we you know, we throw all this carpet away at the end pluses, petroleum to make it and he put on a sustainability conference. He sort of woke up one morning and realized what he and his company were doing to the planet and that conference and the people I met and helping me think bigger and think differently, just getting exposed, exposed to something completely different. And conversations I had with him around that were highly influential, and led me to my Zen teacher, which has been maybe the biggest influence on my life is just this ability to, to sort of take take note of where I am and what's going on, and to listen and see from different perspectives. And I think if people can do those things, whether they get them in a conversation or just an aha moment that they can, they can change their lives for the better.

John Ryan 24:54
Fantastic. Karen, thank you so much for joining us on key conversations for leaders. Can you tell us what's the best way for our readers and our viewers and our listeners to stay in touch and find out more about your work.

Karen Walker 25:04
Great and anyone, including our readers. Sure, you can follow me at www.KarenWalker.us on any social media platform. My website is www.Karenwalker.us. So just Karenwalker.us or Karen Walker, us. Thanks so much for asking. Awesome. Thanks for being here.

John Ryan 25:25
And for the rest of you, thanks so much for watching and listening until next time, develop yourself empower others and lead by example. Thanks for listening to key conversations for leaders with your host John Ryan. If you enjoyed the show, please let us know. Give us a rating or write a review. And if you'd like to connect with me and other like minded leaders, I invite you to join our Facebook group called develop empower and lead where I deliver free live training every week. If you go to www.developempowerlead.com, it will redirect you right there. Hope to see you there soon.

John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

related posts: