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  • Writer's picturejoel

The Leadership Gap: Horizontal verses Vertical Growth

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Horizontal verses Vertical Growth


In Chapter 1 of Team Design we discussed the three obstacles to building a great team. The third obstacle is leaders lack competence and confidence. Our leadership competence is one factor that limits our leadership lid. Competence is the quality of leadership that you are capable of in any given moment or under specific circumstances. I like to look at leadership competence as “vertical” growth.



If you are going to enter a weightlifting competition and you have not been preparing your body to be able to lift the desired load to compete, you likely will be a non-factor and exit the competition quickly. When considering buying a big boat, you first need to ask yourself if you have a truck powerful enough to pull it without overloading the suspension or engine. I am sure there are YouTube videos out there with guys trying to pull a large boat with a wimpy truck. Woops!


Unfortunately, in the world of leadership this same principle applies. Over the past several years I have had the opportunity to discuss leadership competency with several leaders, client’s small business owners as well as potential franchise owners. One common theme continues to pop up. Many leaders or potential leaders underestimate the level of leadership competence required for the career opportunity they are considering. The common thought is that if you are successful in one area of leadership or business, your success should carry over to a new career even if it is a completely different industry. Business is business, right?

As a multi-unit Papa Murphy’s franchisee in the Des Moines area, I have had at least a dozen conversations over the years with people that have begun the process of becoming a fellow franchisee. Part of the do-diligence of going through the process is to contact experienced owners in the area to gain a better understanding from the franchisee perspective.


One question I always ask is if they have ever worked in the hospitality business. In all but 2 occasions they said they have not. I usually follow up by asking them, delicately, if they believe this would be a good fit for them, or why they are interested in opening a restaurant. What I really mean to say is “Why the junk, do you think you are the least bit capable of owning and running a restaurant?” My hypothetical follow-up questions (in my head) would be “Have you ever worked with low-motivated cell-phone addicted teenagers, or stood on your feet all day prepping food at a high rate of speed, down a person because they couldn’t get a ride from their baby-daddy who got locked up last night, all the while knowing that the customers are still going to be there by rush time whether you finish your prep or not?” Whew. I have never asked that, but I want to. That is what a person with little experience in the industry will end up with unless they have already solved those problems.


When inquiring about their experience in this industry, they often will reply with a variation of “I have been a corporate trainer at [whatever] company for several years and have managed a successful team at a high level.” Or “I am retiring and looking for an opportunity for my son to own his own business and thought this would be a good entry level that he would be capable of.” Two different times I heard “I love your pizza and I am tired of the corporate world. I want to own my own business so I can call my own shots and I thought, how hard can it be?”


The point is that competence is not only important, but it also needs to fit the task at hand. My business partner Kevin and best friend since grade school is a highly competent individual in many areas. He was an all-American high school baseball player, college athlete, homecoming king (when they still had those) and a successful senior investment manager for a large bank. However, for a short time in the early days when we expanded too quickly, he helped me in the stores when I needed it. It wasn’t ideal. He just wasn’t built to be an operational leader in this industry (or any water sports). His giftedness is with numbers. At the same time, prior to him coming on board, many of my responsibilities in our company by default included admin duties like payroll, invoices, paying bills and much of the rest of the office duties that I was not built for. Thank goodness we had each other. We both found out just how hard it could be, and both gladly went back to what we do best. Our appreciation for what we each bring to the table increased greatly through those experiences.


Top Leadership Competencies:

• Communication: Good leaders are great at talking to their staff concisely, listening to them, and encouraging open conversation.

• Thinking with a clear vision: Good leaders have a clear vision for the company, which inspires their team to share that vision and work together to reach shared goals.

• Making decisions: Leaders make smart choices by getting information, weighing their options, and thinking about what will happen if they act.

• Adaptability: Small and medium-sized business leaders need to be able to quickly adapt to new situations and welcome change with open arms.

• Empathy: Good leaders build trust and a good work atmosphere by showing care and attention by understanding and helping their coworkers.

• Empowerment: Good leaders give their team members power and duty while trusting them and giving them help to succeed.

• Problem-solving: Leaders encourage creativity, teamwork, and a problem-solving attitude at work by predicting problems and dealing with them before they happen.

• Emotional Intelligence: Leaders with high emotional intelligence are self-aware, empathetic, and good at getting along with others.

• Accountability: Good leaders make sure that everyone on their team knows what is expected of them, that they communicate freely, and that problems are solved quickly.

• Always Learning: Leaders put money into their own growth by constantly seeking education and keeping up with changes in their field, and they encourage their teams to do the same.


Leadership Capacity: Horizontal Growth


It is one thing to have the right level and the right area of competence to lead a team of people at a high level, it is another to multiply or scale the size of your team and maintain the same level of influence. The truth is that the larger any organization gets, the greater your leadership capacity needs to grow to maintain the same level of competency. At the same time, to grow our capacity, we also need to grow our competency. They work hand in hand.

I specifically remember a feeling of despair and helplessness back in the early days after we had opened our first restaurant. We had opened a few months prior, and I had only had one or two days off, working open to close many nights. I had plenty of experience as a manager of restaurants, but this new owner thing was a whole new animal, and it was kicking my butt. If I had known how much harder it was going to get, I may have walked away. Not really, but I would have thought about it.


With the plans to open two more restaurants within the next several months I was under a lot of pressure as I hadn’t even figured out how to run the one that I had. I remember at a moment of uncertainty, wondering if I had what it takes to do this. I was questioning my competence. My competence had not caught up with the capacity I was responsible for. I just needed time to get my skis under my feet. The real question was, how long would it be before I had the capacity to run multiple stores. We were sure to find out. Those were the longest 4 years of my life.


As I look back now and see my struggles to run a single store I can see that it was my competence that needed to be developed. If we had done it right, we would have developed our vertical competence to run one store before growing horizontally and taking on a second, then a third and so on. We grew more stores initially than I was competent enough to handle. We went from one to seven stores in less than a year. I was in way over my head. Not sure what we were thinking, but we powered through and now I have a story to tell.


After the first year, I had grown my capacity to run two or three stores somewhat effectively. The problem was that I had seven. I was like that clown new to the circus that could juggle three tennis balls and was suddenly handed seven flaming torches to juggle.


It took a few years, but eventually we got caught up and I learned how to find and develop a team of managers that helped expand my capacity to operate several more stores. With a few competent managers in place, we all grew together. A few choice leaders and I were able to grow a solid team that eventually allowed me to begin working on my business rather than just in it.


Now I am proud to say that if needed I could run 3 stores with my eyes closed. By raising my level of competence first, my capacity grew into my situation and kept growing. I have since grown my leadership competency and my capacity exceeds our current number of stores. I believe I could easily double stores if we chose to and do it well before I would have to raise my leadership lid.


As it stands, I am raising my leadership lid in business coaching, training, speaking, and writing. By developing my competence, my capacity is growing through multiplying myself in other leaders. I have leaders that can run a restaurant better than me. Not only that, but they are teaching others to run restaurants at a high level of competence.


Joel Smith

Business Coach, Author and Entrepreneur

This article is a section out of the book Team Design: Building Great Teams By Attracting the Right People. Download the Free PDF version.



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