Cracking the Code of Hypergrowth: Insights from Karen Walker's Journey

Ep.19: Cracking the Code of Hypergrowth: Insights from Karen Walker’s Journey


Ever wondered how executive coaching can be the secret sauce for CEOs and senior leaders to not just survive but thrive in the whirlwind of hypergrowth? Join us in this episode with the incredible Karen Walker, an esteemed executive coach and consultant renowned for her expertise in guiding CEOs and senior leaders through the challenges of hypergrowth.

With an impressive portfolio that includes advising industry giants like Aetna, AWS, Pfizer, JPMorganChase, and BMC Software, as well as nurturing Inc. 5000 startups, Karen brings a wealth of experience to our conversation. Karen’s journey is marked by significant milestones, notably her pivotal role as employee 104 at Compaq, where she contributed to transforming the company into the then-fastest growing entity in American history, propelling it from $0 to $15 billion in revenue.

In our discussion, Karen talks about the challenges and dynamics of hypergrowth companies, emphasizing the importance of alignment with investors, a growth-oriented culture, and a high tolerance for ambiguity. Also she introduces a powerful tool — a 2×2 matrix — to simplify complex situations and facilitate strategic conversations, discussing the significance of executive presence and technical skills, highlighting the different personas within each quadrant of the matrix.

Join us in this episode as Karen Walker shares her invaluable insights on navigating hypergrowth, leadership, and organizational development. Get ready for a conversation that promises to be both enlightening and transformative. Stay tuned!

Episode quotes

A new chapter in a book: Karen’s unexpected path into coaching and consulting

And I had, as part of the leadership team, a big global job. It wasn’t very big when I joined, but it got bigger and I loved it. I really loved that environment. And when I left at the size it was, it was just like another big company. And at least for me, it wasn’t a place I wanted to spend the rest of my working life. 

So I took some time out to figure out what I really missed. And I missed putting together high performing teams and making them clear what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and the stuff that gets in the way. And it’s almost never the technical stuff. It is almost always people’s process and tools. 

And, you know, I’m an industrial engineer, so efficiency is sort of part of my DNA and I went back to Columbia. I did their ODHRM programs, I got the theory behind the practice that I knew. And I’ve been working with CEOs and senior leaders and leadership teams now for the past two decades, primarily in the tech space. I’ve also worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies, but I’d say my sweet spot tends to be tech.

Elevate or stagnate: No Dumbing Down

A team can only work at the level of the lowest performing member. And what tends to happen when we put teams together is people come in with different levels of expertise, different goals that can often be misaligned, different resources that they’re able to bring to bear. And if most of the team is able to perform at this level, but you’ve got one team member who, for whatever reason, often not their own fault, can only perform at this level, time, resources, skill level, the team can only perform here, right? 

Because the team by definition is only going to be successful in their interdependence, so the team has to dumb down. Well, what happens when that occurs? The team is not able to work to its true potential, right, and the organization isn’t as well.

And so you want a team to pay attention to how they operate, not just what they’re doing, which you obviously live as well. But how they operate, how they are chartered, how do they debrief what’s going on, how do they make sure that they’re aligned in their goals and their ability to hold each other accountable.

The critical pillars of hypergrowth success

I think the first thing and part of what makes the hypergrowth company successful, we obviously have a product market fit and it’s what happens after you find your product market fit. Do you have an investor who is aligned with your vision of where you want to go? 

Because that is a huge, huge issue if there’s no alignment there. Do you have a culture in your organization that is set up to continue this cycle of hypergrowth? Everybody on the team has to be signed up for the sort of effort that it takes to keep that wheel spinning. 

The other thing that is so important for working in a hypergrowth company, you have to have a great tolerance for ambiguity and a bias for action. And those are things that are hard for people – to be able to live with the unknown. And so if you’re not okay with ambiguity, you will fail. And then of course the bias fraction has to be there in any growth-oriented company.

Navigating the interplay of executive presence and technical skills in a 2×2 matrix

Any executive is in a situation where they are living in a complex world and simplification is often the greatest need. And so a 2×2 matrix will not solve all the world’s problems, but it will give us a framework for talking about what’s going on. So the two axes are executive presence and technical skills, right? And as someone who does coaching, often there’s a tension between those two. 

So if we start in the upper left-hand corner, this is someone with high executive presence but low technical skills. I call that “fake it till you make it”. But you aren’t an “empty suit”, which is what can happen if you only have executive presence, but you don’t really have the skills.

In the bottom left-hand corner, which is low executive presence and low technical skill, I call this “get to work”. You need one of these skill sets or the other, or you’re not going to last in any organization.

The bottom right-hand corner. So this is someone with high technical skills, low executive presence. And so these are people who often get coaching, because they’re moving into areas where they need to have the executive presence, but they’ve been really successful at the company technically. 

And the upper right-hand quadrant. I label it “the sky’s the limit”. This is someone with a strong executive presence and strong technical skills. So the challenge there is to keep growing and developing, because that is someone who’s truly a high-potential, high-performer in an organization.

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