Growth is Everyone’s Job: Seven Rules for Making the Company-Wide Mind-Set Shift

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Growth is as important to businesses as air is to living things. It provides advancement opportunities for employees, generates returns for investors, and keeps our companies healthy and profitable. In short, it's a crucial component for continued existence in the marketplace.

However, growth is far from easy, and the actions we take to pursue it are often perilous. With today's rapid pace of change in technology, customer expectations, regulations, and competition, it is difficult to predict what path will lead to success. Especially when our core markets are at risk of disruption, we need to strike out in new directions to achieve growth, but those new directions require us to enter uncharted territory. New capabilities and substantial investment may be required. Our assumptions, processes, incentives, and organizational structure were all created to support our core historic business, so heading in a new direction to pursue growth can be incredibly daunting.

Leaders face tough strategic dilemmas: Can we afford to divert funds from the large but now stagnant core businesses? Should we build new capabilities internally, acquire, or partner? Should we create a new organizational unit or borrow resources from existing groups? Should we create a detailed long‐term plan or just plunge in?

These choices are hard, but leaders can make them when they understand the new rules of engagement. Driving growth is no longer the job of a few company visionaries. It's everyone's job. Your organization can cultivate the leadership skills and techniques that enable you to achieve growth no matter how fast your business environment is changing, provided you foster a shift in mind‐set.

Leaders must learn how to lead in a whole new way. Employees must get out of the “follow orders” mind‐set and free up their creativity to degrees that are unprecedented. Once you have put this new leadership style in place, at every level of your company, it will take root and flourish. You will be on your way to fearless growth.

Why the Old Way of Leading Growth No Longer Works

It used to be that the growth strategy for a company was set in annual planning cycles. The senior executive team, working with internal and external strategy advisors, would assess the competitive landscape and conceive a set of growth ideas that leveraged existing capabilities and were guided by input from customers. Typically, the team would grant funding to a subset of growth initiatives based on forecasted return on investment. Multiyear plans would be laid out and resources allocated to pursue the chosen initiatives. Directives would be cascaded down the organizational hierarchy. Often, incentives would be put in place to motivate employees to contribute.

As a result of this thorough preparation, and because the business environment was relatively stable and predictable, most initiatives would be successful. These techniques are still important, but now they aren't enough. The business environment, no matter what industry you are in, is changing too fast. Plans made this quarter may be obsolete by next quarter, and we can't predict exactly what must be done to ensure success. Based on the companies I've worked with and observed, here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • In the auto industry, ride‐sharing services such as Lyft and Uber are changing the way people think about car ownership. Major automakers have invested in ride‐sharing and autonomous‐vehicle technology, but no one knows to what extent consumers will adopt these technologies and how lawmakers and insurers will respond to the changes on the horizon.
  • The banking industry is scrambling to adjust to new modes of consumer‐to‐consumer payment (such as Venmo), new forms of lending and credit assessment, and even new currencies, such as Bitcoin.
  • The consumer products industry is adapting to myriad new ways to segment and reach consumers. Digital advertising is evolving continuously, and consumer preferences and behavior are changing even faster.
  • The transportation and logistics industry is coping with globalization, automation, and the rise of e‐commerce juggernauts like Amazon and Alibaba.
  • The entertainment industry is being upended; AT&T is getting into content development through its proposed merger with Time Warner, while Netflix, Amazon, and Google's subsidiary YouTube are creating their own original series.
  • The energy industry is grappling with low oil prices, changing government regulations, and powerful consumer sentiment on both sides of the renewable energy, fracking, and coal debates.
  • The food industry is constantly responding to trends in public perception regarding low‐fat, low‐carbohydrate, non‐GMO, gluten‐free, organic, alternative sweeteners and grains, and other choices.

Given the fast pace of change in nearly every industry, annual planning cycles and large‐scale change efforts often fail to achieve their goals. By the time plans are executed, the ground has shifted, and a new competitor, an emerging technology, or evolving customer preferences have rendered the plan less than fully effective.

So what's a company to do? How can we keep up with the fast pace of change, be in the right place at the right time with the right product or service offering? The answer is a new form of leadership that makes growth everyone's job. And this requires a shift in mind‐set for everyone.

I've developed seven new rules for fearless growth that encapsulate how leaders must change the way they think, lead, and motivate their employees, peers, business partners, and others.

Rule #1: Embrace Uncertainty

In the old world of business, leaders strived for certainty and consistency. Investors and bosses wanted to know what you would deliver and when. Employees expected clear guidance on what to do. Meeting financial objectives, which were often set months in advance, was crucial, so naturally, leaders avoided risk. The trouble is, avoiding risk often relegates you to serving the most predictable and well‐established parts of your market. There, you are likely to meet lots of competition and low margins.

Companies that are successful in the fast‐changing world—like Facebook, Amazon, Google, and others—realize that change is what brings opportunity. They realize that the faster and more surprising the change, the greater the advantage for companies that can respond quickly. They experiment constantly, then expand and invest in what works, while abandoning what does not. In other words, they make friends with uncertainty.

In the areas of your business where uncertainty is high, try assigning a cross‐functional team to achieve your business objectives in a fast, adaptable way. Give them freedom to focus on learning objectives, rather than financial objectives. Allow them to explore unconventional approaches, and give them permission to bypass cumbersome internal processes and irrelevant meetings. Grant flexibility on contractual issues and leeway to expose new offerings to customers before they are fully developed. Your primary role as a leader is to set a clear objective, then clear the way for the team to experiment and learn.

Rule #2: Get in Sync with Customers

In a fast‐changing world, adopting the leadership skills that free your organization to collaborate with and learn from customers is key. It used to be that marketers and salespeople played the most important role in driving customer demand, but with today's new technology tools and buying behaviors, customers themselves are your best marketers, advocates, and even product developers.

A leader who is too protective of his or her brand—insisting that products are perfect before putting them in customers’ hands—will soon be left in the dust by competitors who encourage employees to frequently expose customers to new, even half‐baked, products and ideas. This constant experimentation establishes the fast‐feedback loop that keeps companies in sync with customer needs. Google's Gmail team, for example, puts myriad new features in the “labs” for any customer to try. They watch and learn from what customers love, struggle with, or reject.

Rule #3: Partner, Borrow, and Share

It used to be that a company's assets were a primary source of power and longevity. Now, many companies find that physical assets are an impediment to agility. Inventory can fast become obsolete, plants and real estate are difficult to sell when they are no longer needed, and IT is easier to use and maintain in the cloud than to own outright.

Agile leaders realize that intellectual capital—in the form of know‐how, ideas, relationships, and data—is more valuable than ever, but it is also more perishable. Product lifecycles are shortening, knowledge becomes outdated quickly, and patents provide little protection. Therefore, to stay fresh and to keep building our intellectual capital, we need to increase the flow in and out of our company's boundaries, and collaborate with others outside our company to build new capabilities.

Therefore, leadership is not just a matter of, “How can I motivate, develop, and guide those who report to me?” but also, “How can I enlist, inspire, and improve outcomes for partners outside my business?” Fearless leaders are adept at engaging business partners in a trusting, win–win way to achieve mutual goals. By doing so, they spot more growth opportunities and are able to act with greater speed and agility to capitalize on those opportunities.

Rule #4: Connect and Strengthen Your Ecosystem

The fastest‐growing companies in the world today are those that have created platforms that allow people to collaborate, contribute, and communicate. Companies like Salesforce, Amazon, SAP, and Facebook are masters at creating vibrant ecosystems in which customers, suppliers, content providers, developers, and others collaborate and contribute to common goals. Their customers are willing to review and advocate for products, provide online technical support to other customers, share products they've developed, and more.

Even small and low‐tech companies can do much to enhance and stimulate interactions between their customers, suppliers, and others by hosting events, creating online forums, and simply referring ecosystem members to each other to explore common areas of interest.

Building an ecosystem, however, can be a leap of faith. Upfront investment, whether of time, money, or both, is required. You can't predict exactly how the ecosystem will take shape, who will participate, or how they will interact with others.

Your job as a leader is to help your organization set the intent for whom you would like to attract, how you hope they will derive and contribute value, and what your organization can do to make it easy for ecosystem members to give and get value. Early in Salesforce's history, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Marc Benioff made it a priority to create events for customers, prospects, partners, and the press to “interact and feed off one another's energy and insights.” Salesforce learned that people were not attending to meet Salesforce people; they were “coming to meet other people using the product.” The company's biggest annual event, Dreamforce, now attracts 170,000 people who want to learn, network, and contribute.

Rule #5: Open the Floodgates of Employee Creativity

To achieve agility in our businesses, we need creative, adaptable employees who respond quickly to the changes they see around them. We need every employee to be observing, thinking, and taking action.

Unleashing the creativity of your employees requires a new style of leadership. Leaders give up a degree of day‐to‐day control, but in the larger sense, they gain control over the destiny of their company, because they harness the energy and smarts of an army of employees. When a large swath of leaders throughout an organization understand and embrace this new paradigm, the impact can be remarkable.

Here are a few things leaders can do:

  • Delegate, empower, and admit ignorance. Make a habit of saying, “I don't know. What do you think?”
  • Inspire your employees with a sense of purpose—something they are creating together that is good for the world.
  • Communicate clear values, which will guide employee decisions and behavior as they work more autonomously.
  • Hire people with new ideas, backgrounds, and skills frequently, and rather than molding these newcomers to your organization's way of thinking, use them to bring new insights and to break up patterns of stagnation.
  • Allow new ways to work. Allow people to choose what they work on, and consider fluid, project‐based groups, rather than rigid top‐down structures.

Training every leader in this new leadership mind‐set pays dividends, because employees throughout every function work together to assure the company responds in a smart and differentiated way to the changes that are occurring in their markets.

Rule #6: Learn Fast and Fearlessly

When the world is changing fast, our organizations need to be constantly experimenting and learning. If we don't adapt in response to changes in customer behavior, technology, regulations, and the other elements of our business environment, we not only fall behind, we become disoriented and disconnected. We miss market signals. Customers begin to ignore us and look to others for innovation. We fall further and further behind.

By learning fast, on the other hand, we can achieve dynamic stability. Just like riding a bike, we create stability and safety by the act of moving fast. Leaders facilitate this mind‐set by insisting that teams set clear goals for what new capabilities and knowledge are needed, and that they take action designed specifically to bring about the needed learning. That action might be creating a prototype product and observing how customers use it, trying a new internal process, or visiting another company to see how they do things. Leaders can also create structures and systems that encourage cross‐pollination of ideas and best practices across business units and functions. They can use acquisitions, partnerships, and corporate venture capital investments to quickly bring in new capabilities and people who will enliven and enrich the dialogue in your company.

Perhaps most importantly, design natural feedback loops into the work of your company so employees can feel and see progress toward their goals and can learn fast from the results of their experiments. Nissan does a brilliant job of this, funneling social media comments immediately to the relevant dealer, engineering group, manufacturing plant, or customer service rep. As a result of this fast‐feedback loop, employees learn quickly what does and doesn't please customers.

Rule #7: Build Trust into All You Do

Almost every leader today is looking for ways to operate more efficiently and to increase the speed of innovation and growth. One of the best ways to do this is to build trust among coworkers. An organization without trust is inefficient and slow. There are many stops and starts, as people wait for approvals and verify that others have done what they said they were going to do. Employees fear being the bearer of bad news, so problems are left unaddressed, where they fester and grow. Employees hesitate to collaborate with other functions or to do anything beyond what they have been specifically asked to do.

To succeed in fast‐changing markets, therefore, leaders must actively promote a culture in which employees feel safe to engage in constructive debate, to share ideas and opinions, and to speak frankly with superiors about problems they are facing and changes they see in the marketplace.

To promote this culture, leaders should share information transparently and broadly. They should encourage employees to invest intentionally in building relationships with coworkers, especially those in other functions. Leaders should show vulnerability and admit that they don't know all the answers.

By promoting a culture in which trust is explicitly valued and cultivated, leaders can create an environment in which every employee can speak honestly, where teams can move fast, and where innovation comes naturally.

Turning Thought into Action

So, we've laid out the seven rules and talked about how they contribute to a company-wide growth mind‐set. But how do we know when employees have truly internalized this new way of thinking and acting? Ideally, employees should be agile and engaged in several areas.

First, they should be able to identify potential opportunities that are being created by market change. That means they should be thinking: What new customer behaviors and needs do I see? What's new in the competitive environment? How might we improve our processes and tools to increase speed and efficiency?

Second, they should be able to generate creative alternatives for capitalizing on these opportunities and make fast, fact‐based decisions about which alternatives to pursue. They should know how to access the resources and support they need to bring good ideas to fruition. And they should feel confident that they have a strong network of coworkers to collaborate with.

Finally, they should be able to execute the new direction and adjust course as events unfold. They should understand the big picture of what the organization is trying to accomplish. They should enjoy working with their coworkers, customers, and leaders as they strive to meet goals—and they should feel confident that their efforts will be recognized, even when progress is slow.

You can create a culture in which your employees are constantly learning, constantly noticing and acting on changes they see in the marketplace. You can support their good ideas with resources, create cross‐functional teams to attack problems and opportunities, and facilitate the building of trusting relationships across divisions, levels, and functions. When you create this culture, you will have more eyes, ears, and hands ready to respond as the market changes. You will have created a dynamic, vital, and self‐reinforcing organization.


This article was republished with permission from Leader to Leader. It was written by Amanda Setili, who is author of Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets, and president of strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates: