NOTE: Patrick Lencioni is one of my favorite writers and consultants. He has a private blog for subscribers only, and this article is so good, I wanted everyone on my list to see it. Particularly relevant to us In America where we often think that bigger is better, this article provides a counter point to that notion. Enjoy.
That old axiom "grow or die" might apply to certain aspects of human development or the natural world, but be very careful how you apply it to your business. The truth is that "grow or die" can be, and often is, devastating.
Too many executives I've met over the years have the mentality of a bodybuilder; they've come to accept the idea that growth is synonymous with success. So they rely on the business equivalent of steroids, bulking up the top line with things such as overly aggressive sales tactics, unwarranted price increases, self-destructive discounting, unnecessary mergers and acquisitions, or even a poorly considered IPO. These actions come with their own list of dire side-effects: alienated customers, burned out employees, and disillusioned executives who are left asking one another, "Remind me again, why did we think we needed to grow?"
Avoid the Muscle Beach approach and instead think more like a farmer. Your focus should be on creating an environment where growth can occur, and then letting nature take its course. If that sounds passive or wimpy, consider that the farmer's approach to growth takes greater wisdom, humility, and restraint than the bodybuilder's, and that the rewards are far more attractive--and dependable.
At its core, all authentic growth depends on more customers wanting more of what your company offers. Any other drivers--pricing gimmicks, heroic marketing efforts, forced acquisitions--are ultimately destructive. In addition to focusing on customer needs, you should also work to create the healthiest organization possible, one free of the politics and confusion that so often choke off teamwork and innovation. Keep communication lines open to keep employees engaged and committed. And make sure your team is continually reminded of the importance of having everything the company does connect to the needs of customers.
There are many ways to communicate with employees. The best example I can think of comes from Hayes Drumwright, CEO of Denver-based technology company Trace3. He publishes a book every year outlining his thoughts and vision for the company. If you don't have time for that, holding quarterly off-sites with your leadership team is a great way to address any behavioral dysfunctions that might be sprouting.
When you do these kinds of things, growth will occur naturally--but only if it's meant to be. Some companies simply aren't meant to be bigger than they are. They provide products and services that satisfy their customers in a way that pays the bills, produces reasonable profits, and allows them to keep their people employed and fulfilled. And there's nothing whatsoever wrong with that.
Yes, some companies are essentially forced to grow by any means necessary, either because impatient investors are demanding an immediate return or because disruptive market consolidation is forcing them to scale or be swallowed by someone else. Be grateful you aren't at one of those companies (and if you are, you deserve sympathy, not envy), because they are anything but role models.
When people think about famous CEOs, odds are good it's a bodybuilder who comes to mind. But for me, the best CEOs are, by the nature of how they operate, almost always unknown. They are usually farmers, people running small or medium-size companies exactly as they should be run, and scaling them at just the right pace.
That's healthy growth, sustainable, and worthy of admiration.