Leading a Growth Project vs. Change Leadership: What’s the Real Difference?


I’ve worked as a practitioner, and currently as an advisor, in a very specific niche where I guide those leaders who are accountable for driving the growth of their firms.  This might be the CEO of a smaller firm, or perhaps a member of the executive staff or a team for a large firm charged with building a portfolio that delivers.

I get challenged frequently about the difference between running an organizational change program and leading a growth effort – specifically around how I structure engagements and coach clients differently.  Organizational change efforts usually involve a very specific remapping from one way of doing things to another, with both endpoints being well understood.  There are several commonly used models that inform such change.

Growth efforts that are larger than the existing business model feel very different than organizational changes to processes and systems.  The first difference is that the leaders of growth are responsible for developing their own future state, in response to changes in customer or markets external to the firm.  The second difference is that the end state is not fixed at the outset, and is usually informed by the activity itself, as learning takes place across the journey.  The third difference is that the sponsoring entity (existing businesses) may or may not see direct benefits from the change. For instance, they may be called on to sponsor something that’s good for the shareholders (macro good), but may be detrimental to the business unit in the short term (micro pain).

A good word picture is the difference between leading a tour versus leading an expedition.  While tours are cycles of activity on well-mapped pathways, growth programs are always unique, and the boundary conditions are much more fluid than most organizational changes.  It’s a bit like building a bicycle while you are riding it.

The truth is that the growth leader does the work of creating a virtual future that is so compelling, detailed and well thought out that teammates are willing to leave the relative security of their posts in the existing value delivery engine to make that future a reality.

While there is some high-level similarity to organizational change work, in practice the differences are profound.

9 Core Responsibilities of the Growth Leader

Let’s start with what leading a growth program calls us to do:

    1. Many times we need to negotiate a zone of authority to be able to establish a growth program.  This means working out a way to have the resources to task talent to do some very purposeful exploration.  Keeping this space to work is an ongoing discussion for most program leaders.
    2. We must have or take time to assemble a really clear, arm’s length view of the existing business.  This includes items like products, distribution and services, but also things like the internal cadence of the firm, its core processes, capabilities, balance sheet and talent.  We need to have a realistic financial forecast to use as a baseline so that we know we have really increased the firm’s outlook.
    3. We must understand the current organizational decision structures.  We need to know who has formal and informal influence.  We need to know all the gatekeepers, especially those overlooked functional leaders who either have a lot to contribute or will toss out an anchor.  Frequently overlooked are HR, Quality, Customer Service and Finance teams who can have some remarkably fresh insights.
    4. We must take a creative look at what subsets of customers, expertise, products or services we could use as starting points for establishing new growth.  We must see things in new and unusual ways to get the most from small increments of product and distribution resources.
    5. We need to envision a potential future with such clarity, that we can assemble a credible, specific business case, with well-documented risks and rewards.  This future needs to be ruthlessly coupled to specific customer benefits and emergent customer behaviors.
    6. We must have the influence to make the case to operational leaders that this is an investible future, and that we will be carefully partitioning investments to be proportional and bounded.  We are careful not to over promise, knowing that finding the business model and scale is hard work.
    7. We need to have the drive and persistence to answer everyone’s questions, run our programs inside the current controls of the firm, and be ready to answer them all again on a quarterly basis.  We need to understand our firm’s operating structures well enough to know when we need to get permission and from who.  
    8. We will design hypotheses and experiments that systematically unlock the rewards by removing risks.  We’ll burn the midnight oil to get things done quickly, as we know that windows are tight – both for internal interest, investment and customer need.
    9. We need to be able to guide our programs through the zone of confusion” where there is that sense we have lost sight of the shore behind us, and and we need to see it through to the new future state – even though part of us wants to go back to the comfortable core.

This is a tall order and calls for talented individuals and teams.  There is a base level of talent that needs to be present as the expedition begins, but the truth is that these expeditions are packed with intense experiences that change and develop people.

“People find strength that they did not have or discover brittleness or blind spots that need to be worked out.”

If this resonated with you, please stop back for part two of this series, where I’ll share specifics on the key competencies and coaching points for leaders of growth programs.

If you would like to know more about the tools and processes I use to diagnose and coach growth program leaders and teams, please send me an email or give me a call at 847-651-1014.

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