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The Surprising Ways The CEO Got Her Company To Embrace Growth

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at August 4, 2021

A new CEO of a manufacturing company had been given a mandate by the board to drive aggressive growth and double the size of her business over the next five years. To say the strategy differed dramatically from her predecessor was a major understatement, given the previous CEO was known for his relentless focus on driving efficiencies and optimization with a “spend as little as possible” mindset that minimized investment in R&D and product innovation. While the new CEO wasn’t surprised that the shift would represent significant change for company employees, she didn’t fully anticipate the high level of resistance she faced as execution of the strategy got underway, and the early wins she had expected hadn’t materialized.  

What was going on? Here’s a summary of what she learned:

Nobody was on board even though the train had left the station. 

Given the impact of COVID on this business, the CEO was facing significant pressure from the board to grow, which had only magnified over the past year during the uncertainty of the pandemic. In her board meetings, she described the pent-up demand coming from her directors, who felt that if the company didn’t move fast, they’d lose ground to competitors or be the target of an acquisition. 

No surprise that the CEO then moved quickly to establish a robust growth strategy at the company, and the rollout of projects and initiatives followed, with a plan to achieve certain targets within the first year. She said: “We weren’t just coming out of COVID, we were instituting major culture change at a company filled with highly tenured, traditional employees who were exhausted by the events of the past year. Going slow would have been the ideal thing to do, but given the pressures, that wasn’t a message I felt I could sell.” Fast forward: Six months later, virtually nothing had happened. The CEO described the situation this way: “Nobody was on board, even though the train had left the station.” 

Let go of what you think employees should feel.

Experienced leaders have heard plenty about making the case for change, the importance of bringing others along, and this CEO was no exception, which is why she had taken important steps in launching the strategy. But as progress stalled, she realized something was off, and she pointed out something that is so easy to forget: What is obvious to one group of people may not be for another.  

She said: “Our message was essentially this: ‘We must grow, we have no choice, here is how we will do it, now go do it.’” Cue the town hall meetings, follow up information sessions, trainings, and lots of emails about the changes underway. But something basic had been missed: Employees weren’t ready to hear about a plan or path to growth, because they were still wondering why growth was the objective in the first place. They weren’t sold on the problem but had been expected to embrace a solution. They wondered: What was wrong the way we used to run our business? Why is growth the answer? Why should we care?

It was only after a deliberate effort to assess the effectiveness of the rollout did the CEO learn the degree to which her messages weren’t getting through. She quickly did away with the ‘one size fits all’ approach and realized this: “I was caught up in a story that said, ‘You should understand why growth matters. You should care.’ The truth is by insisting how people should feel, we failed to fully recognize how they actually do feel.”

Translate the change into practical, everyday behaviors to scale growth.

No matter how many plans, messages, and new processes the company established to advance the strategy, the CEO recognized how legacy behaviors and habits were slowing progress. She pointed out: “To be fair, for years, employees have been asked to focus on cost, efficiency, and optimization. Now, we’re asking them to prioritize growth. They don’t know how to do that.”  She noticed how many of the company’s day-to-day mechanics – from metrics to meeting agendas – reinforced “old way” thinking and were counter to the culture and environment required to drive growth at the company.  

In partnership with her own executive team and HR leadership, she began a series of discussions about what a growth-first approach would look and feel like for different groups of employees, in concrete, simple terms. “This was not complicated. It started with simple things like, ‘Add an agenda item to your weekly team meetings that focuses on growth for your business.’” She was surprised at how quickly these small changes added up. “The momentum has been outstanding. People are energized now, and we’ve done more to advance the strategy in just a few months than we did in an entire year, with far less effort.”

Nearly 18 months after the launch of her initiative, what did the CEO learn? Thoughts slow down the rate of change more than anything else. The CEO wanted people to take action, to feel “all in,” but it wasn’t until she understood and accepted what employees were truly thinking, and met them where they truly were – not where she believed they should be – that she was able to advance the growth agenda. What we know from coaching applies here: Thoughts create feelings. Feelings drive actions. The actions we take create results. If you’re trying to drive change, consider the thoughts that are running around your organization. Pay attention to them. Address the ones that aren’t serving you and replace them with something better. Do that, and give yourself and your initiatives their greatest chance of success.


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