The global financial crisis of 2008 shifted the business world in a fundamental way. Today, it’s no longer sufficient to have a stream of products or a portfolio of solutions; to be effective and vibrant in this new world, you need a portfolio of business models. Business model engineering is done by a new breed of professional that I call the growth leader.
It turns out that while some business model work is done from the top down – most of it originates from an enlightened middle of the organization. Who are these new franchise players and what do they do? The short answer, is that they help you find and stay in the Growth Zone. These leaders are able to draw on experience and personality to guide the organization in ways that most top executives can’t. What is it that these individuals have that others lack?
They See the Big Picture
Growth leaders usually have broad experience in their careers and seek it out early. They tend to be people who like to drop into a functional area, master it and then move on to the next function. This is driven by a passion to learn and a hunger to understand how all the puzzle pieces fit together.
In my own case, I was a mechanical engineer in a company known for its electrical engineering expertise. As a business director with a graduate degree in materials and fracture mechanics, I was able to think differently by holding the deep technical needs of our customers next to the shifting economic needs of moving from vertical integration to an OEM model.
Growth leaders are insatiable learners, and ultimately, this will lead them to interact with either customers, partners or both. Spending time in the parts of the organization where economic commerce takes place is very valuable, and is one of the key pieces of experience to look for when evaluating whether to support someone as a growth leader.
Their cumulative experience allows them to understand the enterprise from top to bottom. With support from their organization, they can have an understanding of the company in much the same way that an air traffic controller can see both the movements of individual planes and the larger ebb and flow of air traffic. Having this support and experience allows them to communicate empathetically with other organizations and customers, which in turn allows them to tease out the finer points and requirements of customer needs. They will also have a good set of starting-point questions to drill deep and know when someone is giving them a line of well-crafted fiction.
They Ask Big Picture Questions and Communicate Visually
Growth leaders lead visually – they sketch Business Model Canvases and draw ecosystems on white boards. Instead of working with the status quo, they ask “what’s possible?”, envision the possibilities, and work from there. They invite collaboration and give the organization a clear picture. They build the bicycle as they ride it.
Using metaphor to bring simplicity to a complex discussion is the hallmark of a growth leader.
When you get a meeting and someone totally resets the expectations by asking a grounded “what’s possible” question, you may have just found a growth leader. The same curiosity that takes the growth leader on a horizontal path to gain experience comes hand in hand with a tendency to ask questions that are significant and challenging.
Good leadership will see these questions as useful, both to shape the understanding of the person that is asking them and to provide pathways for improvement that may have not been apparent.
Some leaders find people that ask these questions to be challenging to lead and see them as disruptive. The better approach is to recognize that positive dissonance is the energy that leads to change. If the questions being raised are missing some insight or lead to other hard questions – make those apparent.
They Build Coalitions
One of the other attributes of a growth leader is that they are natural coalition builders; they are constantly refining their mental operating model of the enterprise. By sharing their observations, opinions and questions, they build a cumulative set of relationships that can quickly form into a change coalition. A growth leader will know where the best talent in the organization is, what the points of resistance to a given change will be, and how those individuals might be able to be persuaded to not only participate in, but advocate for a given change.
An example – when the economic recovery act money was released, the organization I was part of needed to quickly produce a solution that was oriented to the smart grid market. I was tasked to pull together researchers, product engineering, systems engineering, marketing, sales & distribution into a high-functioning unit to deliver products and solutions. This charter was assembled and sold to management, with the team being assembled and delivering its recommendations in something like 100 days. Ultimately, we built an effective solution that proved to be useful and profitable.
What’s the value of all this?
Simply said, effective growth leaders are valuable because:
- They give voice and form to changes the organization needs to make to experience growth.
- They are master communicators, and can quickly and concisely nail the customer need and the organizational response.
- They use tools like narrative, business model maps and financial analysis to communicate changes to others in the language that makes the most sense.
- They manage up well, and know how to engage a group of senior stakeholders as sponsors and air cover.
- They build diverse, effective teams, held together by common objectives and understandings.
- They build financial models that lead to large new profit pools.
A growth leader has perseverance and confidence to see the process through, a keen eye towards execution. They are conversant with Project Management, but their scope is significantly larger than a traditional product line extension – as they usually need to open the hood and rewire the business model.
Sound too good to be true? It’s not. Evolving organizations who consistently reinvent themselves instead of blowing up have known how important this function is for years. With the current talent shortage, the techniques we have discussed are more important than ever.
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