Growth Leaders Need to be a Quick Study: Here’s 3 Ways to Build the Muscle


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I’ve had the honor of mentoring many organizational leaders over my career, and one of the most rewarding categories I’ve found is the Growth Leader.  By Growth Leaders, I mean the individuals who recognize opportunity, develop an investable plan and rally a team of people to capitalize on it.

In mentoring these leaders, I have developed more than 20 key areas of competence that need to be established if a Growth Leader is to reach his or her full potential. In this post, I’ll unpack one of those items for you.

A great Growth Leader is a quick study.  To be more specific, a Growth Leader can be dropped into a wide variety of venues including business development discussions, conferences and customer problem-solving sessions and quickly get up to speed and add value.  Just how does the Growth Leader develop this competence?

The answer, is Study and Practice.  (and a secret we’ll talk about in a minute)

When people ask me what to study, I suggest they set up their own personal regimen of reading using a very useful tool called Feedly.  Feedly is a content aggregation tool that allows you to build your own reading list of RSS feeds.  For those of you who subscribe to my Twitter feed, you see five of the results of my daily scan of more than 100 writers in growth and innovation.  I would suggest you start with some of those feeds and build out your own as you get more familiar with the great content that is out there.

When it comes to practice, I recommend that Growth Leaders develop confidence with three tools that allow them to quickly orient the business model, value chain and visual problem.  This in turn will allow them to develop rich questions, which is where the real learning and rich group work can be found.

  1. Business Model Map.  The business model map is a tool that allows you to quickly and impactfully capture a business model on a sheet of paper or whiteboard using a consistent and very intuitive format and vocabulary.  Alex Osterwalder and team developed it as an open source tool, which means that you are free to use it and add to the database.  For example, when I take an initial call from a potential client, I pencil out the 9 boxes and make sure I am able to answer all the questions at a high level before completing the call.  When a growth leader is using this tool in a firm, it allows them to solidify the team by coming back to the same drawing of the new model. It also allows them to invite outside collaborators, making it possible for them to get quickly oriented and make useful contributions.

There is substantial power in iterating this model in front of the group, and doing full workshop sessions to unlock the full power and possibility for the enterprise, product or service.

  1. Value Chain Sketch.  A value chain sketch is useful to get a richer context of the full linkage of participants in the creation of products or services for a given market.  At first glance, it can take the appearance of a series of rivers all joining to create a larger body of water.  An example would be the emerging autonomous vehicle space, where there are a large number of elements necessary to deliver a complex product.  By adding a significant new player of integration and intelligence, an entire industry is being changed.  

Each producer has inputs, outputs and adds some value, and when tied end to end, it can provide a useful tool to study and then take actions on.   I teach a version of value chain mapping that in essence is a series of simplified business model maps side by side that expand the full ecosystem from the raw materials all the way to serving the end customer.  By carefully examining the underlying economics and technology, very important conclusions are drawn regarding stronger and weaker elements and the possibility for improvement and disruption by an entrant. Using a very public example, Jobs knew the value chain very well when he used iTunes to disrupt the music business, the iPhone to disrupt the lock that carriers had on their customers and the iPad to make consuming books and magazines on the screen more important than in print.

  1. Visual Problem Solving Sketch.  Visual problem solving uses sketches to find conclusions and insight by exploring relationships using different thought frameworks.   The tool is set on a solid foundation of unlocking understanding by asking the fundamental questions of critical thinking, i.e. who, what, where, when, why and how.  

Dan Roam has a strong program on visual problem solving (not an affiliate link).   By using these tools to interrogate any data set, you can create and unlock insight for yourself. And when doing it with your team, harness their insights as well.  I have used this approach to unlock stubborn issues in design, operations, sales and marketing.

I encourage growth leaders to make a habit of using these visual problem solving tools when unpacking every report or set of results that are produced on the journey.  The critical thinking muscles of the growth leader and the team will improve, allowing them to make consistently better decisions at key junctures in the process.

These three tools will help you put a coordinate system around your challenge or opportunity.  With deliberate practice, i.e., whenever you read a Wall Street Journal article or grab custard at your favorite restaurant this summer, grab a napkin and start sketching.  Formulate a question or two, connect a couple business models end to end and challenge yourself to find the strongest and weakest position in the ecosystem.  Can you flip it around to be the strongest position? Can you find a way to grow with focus and minimum capital?  How would you test it?

In no time flat, you’ll find yourself markedly faster in all you sessions, triggering growth-oriented conversations routinely.

There is no way that can be bad.

Now for the secret:  No one can do this on their own.  You’ll start with a great flourish, and then fall back into your old patterns quickly.  The good news, is that with the help of two people, you can do it – and do it well.  The first person you need is a good mentor.  If you can find someone who can teach you the content and applications of the above in your firm, find time to do it, as your career will get much stronger.  The second person is a peer who also aspires to find and lead growth.  This person can be in your firm, a colleague from school or someone from a professional society whom you can share your wins and losses with.  With these two people in place, your ability to develop in these areas zoom.

If you’d like to know more about the Complete Growth Leader, write or call me at (847) 651-1014. I’ll be happy to share more with you.

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