When I was a young engineer developing global power projects, I went to see the VP of Global Sales. Right behind his desk was a big plaque that said, “Without sales this place comes to a grinding halt.” To this day, I remember the saying and the importance of growth for companies, individuals, and society in general.
That brings me to a question: who drives growth in your organization? You may have heard the saying “Growth is everybody’s business,” but few individuals within an organization are held accountable for growth. What traits should these people have? Is growth a function of innovation or is it also a result of the intangible skills of those leaders who can create opportunities in every aspect of the business cycle?
When General Electric (GE) was firing on all cylinders, the company had a set of five core values for growth leadership: (1) focusing outward, (2) showing expertise, (3) practicing inclusiveness, (4) thinking clearly, and (5) taking risk. Leaders were measured on these values, and there were hard metrics tied to them. When I was a GE employee, I particularly believed in focusing outward and thinking clearly, two foundational elements of growth leadership.
I sometimes ask why some companies or some individuals within companies are much more adept at looking for growth than others. How much of this growth is related to the personal traits of the leaders and how much is related to innovation, where the product or service sells itself because of its competitive advantages. I believe leaders at all levels within an organization can make a big difference in growing their business, irrespective of the market conditions.
During my career as a Mergers & Acquisition (M&A) professional working for industrial companies, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interact with entrepreneurs all over the world. I was able to experience firsthand their growth leadership traits and their passion for building something new from nothing. These entrepreneurs built successful companies with formidable products and services, competing against large companies and against all odds in the marketplace. Ironically, it was my job to persuade them to divest their business and then articulate how my company could do a better job of growing their business after the acquisition.
To expand on the GE framework and from my personal experiences, here are the three traits I believe are most important for growth leaders:
Passion and Persistence
You can’t teach passion or force people to be persistent all the time, but passion drives performance. That being said, people generally are passionate about something in life, and as leaders, it is our responsibility to align their values and passion with those of our enterprise to achieve the best results.
It all comes down to picking the right leader for the job during the recruitment process and rewarding the right actions and behavior within the company. Passion can’t be hidden, and passionate people are self-motivated and driven to achieve success in life. During the interview process, specifically the behavioral interview process, look for energy and passion in an individual. Passionate people proactively seek environments where their ideas and energy can be put to use, and creating that environment within your company becomes very important.
When I was recruiting for a business development role for a large business in the Middle East, I interviewed a candidate who came from a war-torn country. During the interview, he passionately discussed how he had worked for two years to sell mechanical products for a prestigious project in Dubai. Against all odds, he had escaped from the war-torn country, gotten his education, and succeeded in his career. After getting the job, he used the same passion to drive significant growth initiatives within our company, and later he went on to take a global role with another large industrial company. As I would say quite often, growth leaders have fire in their belly.
Externally Focused and Customer Driven
External focus does not mean traveling all the time, but it does mean thoughtfully and purposefully engaging external stakeholders of the business. Although your customers are one of the main stakeholders, don’t forget to connect with your supply chain, sales channels, and industry influencers, all of whom can give you valuable insights to grow the business. From my experience, I found out that growth leaders spend more than a third of their time engaging external stakeholders, and they go where the action is.
How often do you pause in your operations meeting and ask what your customers need? Growth leaders fight for their customers and drive the internal machine to deliver value to them. In the early part of this year, I invited half a dozen customers to our internal town hall meeting so that they could meet our team and observe our customer-driven culture. After the meeting, our customers said they appreciated being part of the team and gave us valuable feedback on product positioning and building service capabilities.
Here is a question to consider: When was the last time you hosted a growth day where you invited your customers to help you think creatively about growing your business? Growth leaders are not shy about partnering and engaging with customers, which will only help increase the level of trust in the relationship.
Entrepreneurial and Visionary
More than 50 percent of start-up businesses fail in the first year, but the ones that succeed are based on a solid vision of the founder. Growth leaders dream big, and they rally their teams behind a simple vision with a simple story. Leaders with entrepreneurial spirit are relentless in their efforts to take a vision and convert it into a profitable growth engine. It is not easy to be entrepreneurial in a large firm where there are multiple priorities and stakeholders. But growth leaders don’t easily take no for an answer. They are persistent in their efforts to align the multiple stakeholders to deliver substantial value for the enterprise.
Build a culture where ideas are passionately discussed and debated, and take calculated risks on promising ideas. There is always a place for good ideas in this world, and if you don’t embrace them, somebody else will.
Growth leaders come from all races, colors, nationalities, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. Growth leaders can be extroverts or introverts. They can be quirky, and they may even carry pocket protectors. But they all share some common genes that hinge on passion, persistence, outward thinking, and being visionary. Whether your business is a product company or a software company, you need a good mix of growth leaders on your team. A good growth leader is also a good operational leader and they deliver on what they promise. If your company is hungry for growth, design your recruitment process to bring the right DNA into your talent mix and then build a culture that nurtures entrepreneurial spirit.
Hire for passion and persistence, train for knowledge and leadership, and retain for growth and value creation.