[su_pullquote align=”right”]By Lambert Jerman and Evelyne Misiaszek[/su_pullquote]
Successful companies like Sigfox, BricoPrivé or Hellocasa all belong to the world of scale-ups. Whether these companies are young or old, their hypergrowth phase is a highly critical period.

These days, the idea of « scale-up » includes businesses with an annual turnover greater than €5m, with growth of at least 10 to 20% over three years. After graduating from being a start-up and having validated its business model, the scale-up must transform rapidly on several levels : internationalization, recruitment, new business, technical or financial partnerships. Its internal piloting system must keep evolving so that the company can face new challenges, while at the same time the director has to ensure that any new management tools put in place are adapted for hypergrowth. It’s a situation that requires a delicate balance between short-term decisions and the company’s long-term strategy.

A loss of proximity and a delicate balance to be achieved

Recruitment needs being, by definition, substantial in companies in hypergrowth, employee numbers are inclined to increase so quickly that before long the director finds him or herself unable to directly supervise the workforce or get to know them personally. This loss of hierarchical proximity is often exacerbated by an ever greater geographical distancing. Information flow can be threatened within that structure, and jeopardise the business’s culture and cohesion. The director’s charisma, values and personal commitment are no longer enough.

To get to grips with this new reality, the director of a scale-up has to adapt and reinforce the way the company is governed and strengthen its piloting system, without curbing the creativity and innovation so vital so its development.

Achieving this delicate balance in a way that maintains responsiveness and the informal coordination inherited from the start-up alongside more formal and rationally-defined procedures necessary to a larger group, is anything but easy. Four drivers of action can nonetheless be identified to make transforming the company less complex, and to maintain as far as possible the proximity necessary for it to remain cohesive.

  • The redefinition and effective delegation of responsibilities, by upskilling staff, particularly those with high potential. This requires the director to listen to and support his or her staff, and to trust them and include them in decision-making.
    • Possible actions :
      • Create centres of responsibility with real decision-making powers.
      • Follow the new prorogatives in their entirety, despite the temptation to take « shortcuts » in urgent situations.
    • Information transmission should be agile and reliable. To be able to delegate, the director must implement a reliable information system which can be flexibly adapted to the needs of the company’s decision-makers.
      • Possible actions :
        • Communicate on a regular basis summary reports and key indicators describing the firm’s strategic levers, with the intention to ‘objectivize’ the activity, and in time, to better anticipate and facilitate decision-making.
      • A combination of formal and informal controls.. Alongside the establishment of indicators, the director could create opportunities for regular exchange of ideas with his or her teams to encourage better upward and downward circulation of information.
        • Possible actions :
          • Setting up recurring meetings where technical ideas can be exchanged, as well as more informal and occasional encounters to encourage team involvement.
        • Maintaining the entrepreneurial spirit. The setting up of a more structured piloting system should not put a brake on innovation and creativity within the company. It’s the director’s responsibility to maintain the spirit and values of his or her company by spending time with the teams on a regular basis to share his or her vision, without threatening their much-needed autonomy.
          • Actions :
            • Communicate on a regular basis the goals and values of the company, the director’s strategic vision, day-to-day issues and more strategic ones aimed at successful hypergrowth.

To tackle the two major risks associated with piloting hypergrowth – a more complex business environment and the loss of proximity to its teams – the director of a scale-up needs to let the company find a balance between the very informal piloting system of a start-up and the more formal control of the big groups.

This article has been written under the partnership “Scale UP – Gérer l’hypercroissance”

[su_pullquote align=”right”]By Lambert JERMAN and Alaric BOURGOIN [/su_pullquote]
At a time when many professions are questioning their own deep meaning, torn between economic constraints and impending automization, the auditor for the Big Four accounting firms has provided a useful insight into what makes work meaningful for today’s service professionals.

From the empowering stature of the expert to difficulties on the ground

On the ground, auditors face a series of difficulties which tend to nuance the idealised vision of the numerate professional. In practice, auditing demands that the practitioner resist and sometimes transgress their company rules, while adjusting continually to the constraints of their missions according to their own subjective logic. Refractory clients with packed schedules or accounting papers in chaos 1 means auditors grapple with a permanent sense of anxiety about their ability to accomplish their missions. The fear of doing damage is omnipresent, since an undetected error in the financial statements can have serious legal and financial consequences. All these facets of the work of the auditor suggest that the construction of his identity does not always bring a sense of worth, reassurance, or inner harmony. It is also linked to an intense relationship between an individual and his or her weaknesses, where the exercise of his professional activity confronts him with the limits of his expertise, his failures, his mistakes.

This is why we tried to understand the practices and the discourses that the auditor uses to construct the image of a “good” professional. How do difficulties on the ground determine the auditor’s ability to match up to his own expectations as a professional? To answer this question, we carried out an ethnographic enquiry over six months in a big international audit firm.

Negative identity: constructing an identity as a “good” professional through experiencing, confessing and managing one’s weaknesses

Our results show that the construction of professional identity takes place under conditions of stress, when an individual is driven to examine himself objectively in the hope of embodying an idealised professional image in public. Our study of the auditor allowed us to pinpoint the notion of “negative identity” which lies at the heart of our argument. Negative identity equates to the practices and discourses by which the auditor constructs him or herself as a “good professional” in intense and continuous relationship to his or her weaknesses. Specifically, these practices and discourses revolve around (1) experiencing, (2) confessing and (3) managing the auditor’s own weaknesses.

By experiencing his weaknesses, the auditor engages in a practical investigation which enables him to become aware of the distance which exists between his image of himself as a numerate professional and the reality in the field. Ambiguous situations, equivocal subject matter, the constant pressure of error-avoidance and clients, mean he can’t rely solely on the company rules to regulate his behaviour. This dawning awareness brings anxiety and forces him to question his areas of vulnerability, to take risks, to put himself in a “lower position” in response to the demands and limitations of clients. This attitude echoes observations made in other service professions like consultancy 2, where professionals have to contend with anxiety linked to the proliferation of short-term contracts, new environments and contact with demanding clients.

By confessing his weaknesses, the auditor operates a convergence of his vulnerable position and the more empowering image of the numerate professional. This practice maintains the tension between the individual’s negative self-perception and the more laudatory discourse carried by the firm. Confession is in the first instance linked to an exercise in humility, where the auditor again confronts himself in a reflexive endeavour. He must learn to “self-assess as bad”, ie, externalise and verbalise his weaknesses on a voluntary basis in the firm’s appraisal system. These systems then encourage the definition of “progress axes” which operate a fundamental reversal. The detailed factoring-in of the individual’s weak points leads to the stabilisation of a professional profile appreciated at its proper value. However, this transformation is never completely achieved because confession safeguards the imperfectability at the heart of professionalism.

Finally, by managing his weaknesses, the auditor rationalises the key issues of the job and discovers interpersonal and official support which allows him to contend with the challenges of the field. Since the reversal operated by the confession is largely rhetorical and confined within the walls of the company, it isn’t sufficient to enable the individual to contend with his weaknesses in a lasting way. The overall vision of the missions and the client’s issues, team solidarity and official concerns, allow him to make a virtue of necessity, and assimilate the constraints and vagueness of the job, on an intellectual as well as a practical level. The auditor, characterised by doubt due to the challenges on the ground, is thus repositioned within the prestigious social identity of the professional, creating in the individual a temporary equilibrium which must be forever created and recreated between these two poles.

The “good” professional, Sisyphus of imperfection

By taking the auditor’s weaknesses and on-the-ground challenges seriously, “negative identity” reintroduces personal identity behind the well-delineated and high-status image of the expert affixing a final judgement on the correctness of the accounts. We can discern a vulnerable auditor, as invasive with himself as he is with his client. Faced with the ambiguity of the situations in which he has to intervene, the auditor feeds his professionalism with his ability to doubt himself and with an anxious view of his ability to bring his missions to a successful conclusion. A veritable Sisyphus of imperfection, he presents as an individual in tension between a sometimes painful experience of the job and the positive image carried by the firms.

Our observations show how the construction of identity also takes place in and through challenges, placing the individual in an introspective position, maintaining constant doubt 3 about his own value. Beyond the threat of economic circumstances or of the coming automization of verification operations, our study suggests that the auditor owes his success as a professional to the adaptable nature of a practice fed by constructive questioning of his own value.

[su_spoiler title=”Methodology”]The first author worked as an auditor himself and logged his observations (in his firm and when on mission) in a working journal. This ethnographic method let researchers get close to the issues on the ground and acquire insider knowledge of observed phenomena. This method is relevant in analysing the construction of identity, which is experienced intimately by the players and therefore difficult to verbalise during interviews. The rôle of the second author was crucial in order to check immersion bias and find a proper balance between professional distance and the personal involvement that is indispensable to ethnographic research. Reference for the complete article: JERMAN, L., & BOURGOIN, A. (2018). L’identité négative de l’auditeur. Comptabilité – Contrôle – Audit, 24 (1), 113-142. doi:10.3917/cca.241.0113.[/su_spoiler]