Leading Growth in Established Firms: It’s a Discipline Not an Event


True Story:  As a mid-senior strategist, I was invited to a series of meetings to define the “next billion dollar business” which was being led by an internal group charged with helping a C-level leader “leave a legacy.”  The timeframe was extremely short, and the results were a mix of older zombie programs that were wandering the hallways, some bottom desk drawer wonders and remarkably, a couple of fresh ideas.  This group of stuff was plotted on 2×2 charts, built into credible looking financial models and presented to a very senior group of exec’s for review.  Thankfully, the box was checked and no real customers were harmed in the creation of this milestone (which was probably related to checking a box for a bonus payment).

Two decades later, the stunning audacity of that exercise has stuck with me…that there was unactivated $1B business that we just simply needed to get together and form –  all without going outside the confines of our leather seated conference room.

The situation reminds me of the 26 year old, ex-college athlete who decides to run a 10K without training.  The results only surprise our participant, yet we continue to try the same thing over and over in our business life.

Here’s the real truth – they are out there, that being the $1B businesses.  What we now know is they only yield to a disciplined approach and not a one-shot wonder event.  As Tim Sanders recently said, a breakthrough project is a path with “a thousand problems solved.”

Building Growth is a Discipline

Leading growth requires three ingredients that we’ll explore in order of importance: Leadership, Diverse Talent and Protocols.  Having all three legs on the stool are critical to avoiding wasting money, time and the most scarce item these days: talent.


There was a portion of my career where I visited every cell phone manufacturer in the world, serving in the dual role of product and technical expert for frequency generation components.  In this role, I quickly learned to pick those program leaders that would be successful, because frankly the firm’s success and my compensation depended on it.

Having seen dozens of the teams across more than 20 countries, I was surprised to find that the hero leader is greatly overrated.  What I came to understand was that yes, some degree of charisma was a plus, but what was really needed was a respected leader who drew out the best opinions by creating an environment of critical thinking, openness and trust.  This was coupled with an absolute intolerance of delay, driving swift and decisive actions.  They were usually an SME (subject matter expert) in one of the core disciplines, with the humility and intelligence to access additional SME’s as needed.  Usually seen as an “up and comer” by the senior team, these leaders worked the whole firm laterally from supply chain to marketing and sales.

By assembling our insights and observations, we were able to build a great portfolio of devices and create a much more solid financial forecast that led to high (and profitable) utilization of very expensive capital equipment.

Diverse Talent

When you work with teams doing breakthrough work, you quickly understand that the myth of the lone genius is truly just that.  The best work was done by true individual experts pulled together under the banner of a specific problem or use case that mattered to the market.  While members were true SME’s, it was in what I call the “second order” help they gave each other that truly unlocked breakthroughs.  For instance, a breakthrough in energy savings (and battery life) provided by a product designer to the radio team putting together insights and ideas they gained while viewing a Holiday show with their children.


First, it turns out that the physical proximity of team members to one another to allow open informal communication is very important. These seemingly serendipitous events can be cultivated by high challenge, high support environments.   Study after study shows that collocation of the core team continues to be one of the largest accelerant to rapid breakthrough teams.

From the linked study:

“One of the main drivers of success was the fact that the team members were at hand, ready to have a spontaneous meeting, advise on a problem, teach/learn something new, etc.”

Second, I help my clients form effective process structures to engage the leadership of the firm in an efficient way, while giving the operating teams the freedom to solve the issues in front of them.  You can read more about challenges in building these teams in some of my other posts here and here.

Lastly, use  tools borrowed from Lean Methods, Six Sigma and Rapid Customer Profiling.  You might assume these were the highest value items from the amount of ink that is spilled here, but truthfully, the team leader should have the power to activate a subset of these tools in service of the objective.  Said directly, prescriptive use of tools and processes is at best neutral, and in many cases erodes the credibility of the firm’s leadership.

Every Cycle Improves Your Craft

If a firm you are part of has not done the hard work of creating organic internal growth, it’s going to feel like a brand new exercise each time you approach it.  Firms who make the investment in gathering the best ideas, shortlisting them and making investments to improve them, develop real muscle and consistent results.

If you would like to learn more about the tools, diagnostics and protocols in my Complete Growth Leader development program for individuals and organizations, please send me a note for call me at 847-651-1014.

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