Many of us are at an interesting time of our business cycle; how to finish the year strong and above plan … and creating, defining and finalizing next year’s sales plan. By now, in December of a normal year, strategies and quotas would be all set. This year-unlike-any-other-year strategy discussions are filled with what-ifs and contingency plans – but what is true is business planning and growth are definitely marathons not sprints.
In the simplest terms, ‘growth’ usually refers to a top-line increase in sales (revenue) over a previous year, which could mean taking market share from competitors, or creating or increasing a new business area not yet fully penetrated. The dichotomy is that for most publicly-held companies, this means both balancing costs, managing investments (sales or development), maintaining or increasing profit margins, and upping sales in an ever increasing hyper-competitive world; and with a global pandemic still raging. Since there is obviously no silver-bullet and no magic crystal ball, I still think about growth in fairly simple terms: what I/we can control, what I/we can’t, and what I/we can influence.
Much as in a marathon, we can’t control our competitors time (short of trying to trip them during the race), but you can control your level of fitness, have a well-thought through strategy (that works for you), and knowing there will be events well out of your control during the long marathon like the weather, injuries or unexpected occurrences (think 2020), have an alternate plan.
- Growth is a goal, not a strategy. Growth, be it top-line, bottom-line or both, is a by-product of a strategy. The dictionary synonyms I found were: ‘development’, ‘maturation’, ‘growing’, ‘germination’, ‘expansion’, ‘progress’, ‘advancement’, ‘headway’, while the antonyms were ‘withering’, ‘failure’ and ‘decline’. One definition says, “The process of developing or maturing physically, mentally or spiritually”. So, in its simplest terms, it means where we want our company, our team and ourself to be at a certain point of time.
- Hope is not a strategy. Just because we want the market to increase, or our product sales to skyrocket, or our teams to blossom, means nothing without a well-thought through plan, based on analysis and data – and reality – that the collective team can get behind. The famous quote from Albert Einstein reads, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The converse of this is expecting positive rising results also from doing the same things over and over again.
- Culture eats strategy for lunch? It was Peter Drucker who originally discussed “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” with Dick Clark of Merck adapting it to “Lunch.” And in Drucker’s original discussion it was not an ‘either’/‘or’ discussion where one is meant to take sides, so much as it was to highlight the amount of time business executives attend to is out of proportion to their contribution to organizational success. The key word here is ‘and’ – attending to both in unison makes the biggest difference.
- Place your bets. When I coach my own team on taking risks and developing ideas that are part of the bigger company or group strategy – I give them the analogy of what they can put on their CV in the future as an original idea that they took through development, implementation, interlock and success. If you have not failed at a bet that you placed, you never really played the game – you sat in the bleachers and became a critical fan who was never on the field. Just like a roulette table, you can’t place a bet on every number, nor can you in business place a bet on a random number and hope (is not a strategy) that it comes up for you.
- Innovate, differentiate or die. Every single business today is an innovator or must differentiate in some way or another. Whether you’re investing billions of dollars in research and development on the next big technology or pharmaceutical, or your own life savings on a small business, you have to have a way to differentiate and market yourself today, in your place and time – on your own terms. In every single business we’re all in, there are strong competitors. I love the great Wayne Gretzky quotes, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take. I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”. I’ve fortunately finished every marathon or ultra-marathon I’ve ever started – and never finished any marathon I didn’t start.
- Strategy is an art and a science. Some companies get so hung up on the science part and build a strategy based solely on market data, reports, focus groups, and technologists they forget to think differently (e.g. Apple). It even showed up on this year’s World Series where a pitcher who was throwing his best game ever was taken out for statistical match-ups, and it backfired. Some go with a seemingly great idea that might be based on ego or hubris without the data and science to back it up. One of the key inputs I believe in the mix of both is active listening and precise questioning. I’m always amazed when I ask customers, partners, competitors and colleagues what they think of a certain strategy or approach – they tell you the truth. All you have to do is to distill from the nuggets that are applicable to you.
- Simplicity in communication. Many times in our complex world, complex industries, complex technologies, there is no one single unifying theory of relativity, there is no E=MC2. But the best growth strategies are simple enough to be understood by every single person in the organization and adopted as the way of working. Lao Tzu said, “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.” Which leads me to number 8.
- Patience is a virtue, but not unlimited. Be brutal on the problem, not the person. How many times have you worked for a company with a sound growth strategy and just when it seems to be paying off, someone pulls the plug or the funding just as the flower was beginning to germinate. Yes, we sometimes need to fail fast, but we also have to have patience and fortitude to run the race till the end and – if we believe our training is right, we are making headway on our competitors, and if the wind is at our back, that we can reach our goal. We also have to have the fortitude and confidence to call out problems, openly and transparently and make swift adjustments.
- Leadership matters, talent matters. In the end, it is the execution of our growth plans that will be done by our collective teams. In our new normal of highly-matrixed and decentralized, geographically-spread mostly virtual global organizations, getting our people’s hearts and minds behind the cause will give us the greatest chance of true growth. Reorganization is seldom the answer, unless it simplifies the growth execution and is not just moving the deck chairs around. What does matter is hiring the absolute best people that are attracted to your cause. As the saying goes, “hire in haste, repent at leisure”.
- Growth takes many forms. We’ve all seen or used dashboards or scorecards that were a mix of red, yellow, green or a huge number of metrics that showed how on track or off-track we are. For most publicly traded companies, the absolute measure is a simple mix of year over year sales/revenue growth, increasing profitability and the ability to invest further in innovation and resources. For most corporations as well, it means mix matters. Geography, product lines, productivity, vertical solutions, professional services might be some mix matter measures. I also believe in measuring personal growth. While we might get a good commission check or bonus at the end of a great quarter or year, when you see how someone has grown on your team, has matured, led, took risks, led with their heart and inspired others around them, there is no greater ‘and’ to complement the financial and mix matters growth achievements.
I now see every year as a marathon where I want to see our team perform their absolute best and achieve things they never thought possible. To be challenged every single day that we should anxiously await the stretch targets we take on for the next year’s race. In a marathon, strangers cheer for you as you run through the city (that usually never happens at work) – and if you’re fortunate enough to finish, the organizers place a medal around your neck – that no one can ever take away from you. People say it’s all about the medal, but the truth is – not really. No one wears it around their neck to work the next day or while they’re shopping. You do get to carry that memory of what you accomplished, against great odds, every single day of your life. And it’s so precious, it is worth more than gold.
I never in my life thought I could run a single marathon, but once I reached that first finish line, I knew there was another challenge ahead. When I completed running a marathon on all seven continents, I knew there were mountains to be conquered. After that, I’ve been fortunate enough to run and finish a marathon in thirty-five different states, until Covid-19 caused a pause. I’ve struggled in heat and cold, hail and brutal sun, I’ve moaned and laughed and even got to see my wife finish her first marathon in the rain with tears of joy. But I know I’ve grown along the way and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see others cross their finish line, the team reaching their personal and group growth goals and even getting that recognition medal.
When we challenge our teams to develop and execute our growth strategies and we see them step-up to the challenge, to the hardships, and the wonderful moments closing the big deal or helping a customer with their business needs – we can see that company, team and personal growth is indeed both the goal and the wonderful, exciting, true-life journey we embark on together.