I fell in love with endurance sports when I was 41, training for my first marathon. As CEO of a consulting firm that has grown more than an average of 20% since 2000, I'm still learning how to apply what I've learned as an endurance athlete to create and sustain growth. Let me share a few of the key things I have discovered.
Build up slowly to go the distance
In endurance training you build up slowly—no more than a 10 percent increase in distance from week to week. If you build mileage too quickly or do speed work before you build a base, you'll get hurt.
I regularly interact with global and regional business leaders who come to Asia with a mandate to generate business growth. The successful ones temper this with patience, openness, and a willingness to understand the people and the business they've come into. The ones obsessed with turning the business around in their first year nearly always fail. They insist they must deliver results, yet they ultimately sacrifice both results and growth. If you do too much too fast, not only will you get hurt, so will your entire organisation.
Develop opposing capabilities
When I first trained for a 100k race, I discovered that over-relying on one set of muscles, under develops another. A torn calf and months of rehab changed my perspective forever.
Like a runner who builds up her quadriceps and ignores her hamstrings, a growth leader will get hurt without the right balance and capabilities. The major muscle groups for growth are those that explore new growth opportunities; their opposing set are those that exploit existing assets.
As a leader, one of these might come easier to you. Perhaps you have a sales background and can lead a team that sells anything. If you over-rely on this, you'll end up focusing too much on your existing portfolio and not looking for new opportunities for growth. On the other hand, if you engage too much of your organisation in preparing for a big acquisition, you may ignore important customer relationships.
It feels so easy to say this, but after clocking thousands of kilometres and driving business growth for the past 14 years, I know this is easier said than done.
Use smaller races to prepare for bigger ones
When I switched from running long-distance to triathlons, I discovered the importance of using shorter races to prepare for longer ones. While an Olympic-distance triathlon is relatively easy to complete, it requires training in three sports and mastering the transition from one sport to another. These shorter races provided great training for an Ironman 70.3.
If you think about sustained growth like an endurance athlete, you will view the small growth opportunities as training grounds—not just a small revenue play. Don't lose the chance to develop important capabilities for the future with these training opportunities.
Vary your terrain
One thing is certain in training, after time, your body acclimates to what you are doing. Changing what you do, when, and where you do it triggers new muscle development.
If you are leading growth for a specific product or market, you can increase your own growth by moving to a new market, selling something different, or selling to new customers. This shift can be uncomfortable, but the change is what changes you!
If you lead teams, look at job movement as a means for growing growth capabilities. Move your people from established, slow-growth markets to new, high-growth markets and vice versa. If you want an agile organisation, start looking at different rates of growth and business environments as an asset to be leveraged.
Take care of the little things
I learned the worst pain comes from little things you tend to ignore. Tendons are a great example. We don't typically worry about tendons. We worry about muscles. But, if you tear or pull a tendon, you're out of commission for weeks.
If your business is growing year after year, chances are there are small issues that everyone ignores. Growth can mask a multitude of sins—weak governance, poor cost discipline, and undisciplined processes often creep in. So, while things are looking their best, it's time to be MOST vigilant. Ensure you have the right disciplines and routines in place to prevent the small things from shutting you down.
Leading growth takes a lot more than big goals and hard work. If you want to lead sustained growth, train yourself and your team to think and act more like endurance athletes. With your team, consider the following questions:
- How will we build a strong enough base for our teams to go the distance? How do we prepare our leaders for this?
- What small races will prepare us for our ultimate competition?
- What opposing muscle groups must we develop? How do we find the right balance?
- What are the varied environments we can access to prepare people to lead growth? How do we turn experience into a valued asset?
- What small things are we not worrying enough about? What routines do we need to avoid future pain?