It Takes More Than Wishing to Become a Growth Leader


I was on the phone recently with a colleague who leads a significant development organization in a Fortune 100 firm. She was lamenting the need for more people to take the lead on helping to craft more insightful and on-target services.

It’s something I hear from many of my client firms, and when we go deeper, I hear two stories: The first story is that of the leadership, which tells me that they are doing all they can, citing examples like investments in good ideation software, bringing in speakers, and doing pitches and innovation days.  But when I talk to the mid-level, “up and coming” leaders privately, I hear quite a different story.  It’s a story that usually centers around uncertainty – uncertainty in the level of empowerment, where the lines of flexibility are in the process (who they can informally partner with, and so forth).

In balancing these two stories I find the roots of a portion of the coaching work I do with emerging growth leaders.  The reason these two stories diverge is not intentional on the part of either party. Rather, it’s an artifact of human nature.  The senior leader has forgotten just how strategically they needed to work to establish empowerment and freedom of action in their own career path, and assume that now that they have the ability to provide “air cover,” their teams will be equally comfortable using it.

This unintentional gap translates to unspoken cautiousness in their subordinates’ approach to risk taking, costing the current firm the payback on their front line intuition and thinking.  To allow the up and coming growth leader to assemble their own platform of competence and confidence, we work to build their personal platform.

The takeaway? Just as you cannot pass along the benefits of exercise to another person, Growth Leaders need to be offered the platform to build their own skill set.

I have written before about the four key competencies of the growth leader (here and here).  In all cases, the best are able to serve as architect, champion, catalyst and are anchored well.  Nearly always, I find powerful skill sets in one or two areas and developmental needs in the other two.

So, we’ve established that there is a natural gap, and that it is of great benefit to have people with these skills. So what does a developmental platform look like?

How to Drill Down and Get this Work Done

  • First, Qualify Them. Do they have a real hunger to lead growth? In other words, have they shown a degree of leadership and subject matter expertise that indicates that they would enjoy more than their current functional role allows, and actually help take the firm’s services in a new direction?  Have they volunteered for tough customer assignments?  Does the sales team seek them out?
  • Proportional Stretch Assignments. In the emerging growth leader’s mind, are they thinking about how they can gain the insight, empowerment and resources needed to do what they perceive needs to be done?  How about their boundaries and how much trust they’ve been given?  These are the questions that come up when you are developing sponsorship, or what we sometimes call “managing up.”  They are also questions that  will never be asked of the leader above unless there is a known charter that makes these a safe and consistent set of questions.  By giving them reasonable cross-team development roles, you will build both skills and confidence in your growth leaders.  Usually these roles allow the emerging leader to retain their functional “home,” so if it’s uncomfortable, they can resume duties as normal.
  • Testing their Strengths to Develop Lateral Influence.  The modern organization that is thriving in this fast-paced world moves information through it laterally.  Moving things beyond the firm’s boundaries is always gated by being able to work with the firm’s production and sales leadership.  This is one of the biggest opportunities for most emerging growth leaders to learn the rules of the road in how to engage with production, sales, and ultimately, a client in joint development activity.  This is a big step and needs skillful mentorship to avoid having great talent come up short and leave your group.
  • Do all the above while intentionally improving their resilience.  All of this working to break out of existing patterns can take a toll on even the most experienced growth leader.  Help your emerging growth leader onto solid ground by developing a rock solid routine of self care, solid business principles and great perspective building skills.

These skills are best developed in the crucible of real life through hands on workshop, group work and coaching.  You won’t find a business school course on how to develop strength in lateral management, yet it’s critical to becoming a growth leader.

The important takeaway is that developing that rich organic growth in your firm doesn’t just happen, it takes investment, planning and nurturing.  Without being intentional about what you are trying to create, rather than growth, you can easily sow the seeds of frustration.

If you want more good organic innovation to come from your team, you’ll want to consider some work with the Complete Growth Leader toolkit.  We have a diagnostic tool for the participant and will develop a custom set of coaching techniques to build their skills.  To get started, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here and set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

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