Surpassing the Startup Plateau: The Law of Explosive Growth

Growth by Addition:

For a new technology startup, increasing revenue is a deceptively simple equation at first:  add talented people to meet the needs of increasing demand; send invoices.  As John C. Maxwell’s classic text, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership explains, this resource growth strategy, especially in establishing a management tier as the organization matures, inevitably hamstrings the momentum that can be attained as demand for services increases.

The Law of Explosive Growth: To add growth, lead followers. To multiply, lead leaders.

– John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

Organizations that hire, train, and reward leaders-of-followers stay flat in structure, maturity, and profitability no matter how talented those followers may be.  Tech startups are especially at risk of getting lost in an acquisition-only strategy for human resources due to the high liquidity of top talent.  While grabbing a top talent for skill-specific value creation may feel like a win for HR and management, addition-based growth of skills will always result in addition-only growth of delivery capacity.

Explosive Growth:

To break past this plateau, the leadership of an organization must drive a top-down paradigmatic shift from an addition-based growth model to an explosion-based growth model; from obtaining high-skilled followers to finding and keeping leaders-of-leaders that create and retain high-skilled followers.

The change in the equation is simple:

  • Hiring one follower that is talented adds one talented follower
  • Hiring one leader increases the talent of the organization by a factor of followers impacted, and often a few followers will follow that leader from one organization to another
  • Hiring one leader-of-leaders will increase the talent of the organization exponentially as (s)he creates other leader-of-leaders who create talented leaders and high-skill followers

Organizations that find, empower, and enable leaders-of-leaders grow explosively. This change is the tech startup’s most critical step in becoming an organization that can rely on growing “from the bench”, hiring new talent early in their career, grooming the leaders, supplying resources and opportunities for growth so that they are retained and become leaders-of-leaders.

Don’t reorganize around a weak follower. Retrain, move, or fire them. You’re doing that person a favor in the long term. And, you are doing your team a favor immediately.

– Gen. Colin Powell

Who to Find:

How do you know the right leader to find and empower?  When recruiting high-skill talent, take those high expectations for skill-specific talent as the baseline and make that expectation clear when screening.  Then look for high-impact leadership attributes above and beyond that baseline skill set.  The leader-of-leaders will:

  • Prioritize continuous self-improvement and self-investment
  • Invest time in top talent, pushing them to become leaders as well, rather than spend time on followers equally
  • Shares knowledge and best practices to strengthen those with a desire to learn, rather than hiding knowledge to protect their position through information asymmetry
  • Entrusts the right people with leadership responsibilities so that more time can be focused on investing in the strategic vision of the organization and building up new leaders
  • Wants a legacy and successors more than responsibility and security


If your organization has reached a plateau in growth, look at your leadership habits, and the habits of the leaders you lead.  If you are not actively improving yourself as a leader-of-leaders, investing time in your top talent, so they are high-impact leaders-of-leaders, and driving a culture that rewards leadership, you will never achieve explosive growth.

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