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The Misuse of ‘Grow or Die’

Jan 17

We’ve all heard leaders refer to the adage ‘grow or die’ in their attempt to motivate employees.  Most people don’t dispute it and push harder to increase sales or revenue or customers.  Well, I think it’s time to dispute the wisdom of this axiom, or better yet, to clarify it. 

Good growth is about improvement and development.  Sometimes that growth leads to increasing size and scale.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  When leaders mistakenly insist that size and scale are necessary for growth, they often jeopardize the success of their organizations.  And it happens all the time. 

Now, there are some organizations that feel an understandable pressure to continue growing.  These are public companies who must keep their stock prices high to fund their operations or fend off the threat of a hostile takeover.  For the vast majority of other companies, the compulsion to grow is a result of groupthink and pride.  It is not, however, a good predictor of long-term success. 

Boredom may be another driver of the misapplication of ‘grow or die.’  When executives successfully lead their organization to a “record year” in revenue, they often are faced with the prospect of “what’s next?”  The easy answer is “more of the same.”  While that may sometimes be the right answer, in many cases, it is not. 

Having a great year might actually be an opportunity to slow down and invest in infrastructure or product development or culture.  While those options are not mutually exclusive to growth in size or scale, they are not necessarily correlated.  The fact is, the best companies, like the best athletes and performers in other disciplines, often need to slow down after a big push, to recover and reflect and restore.  Forcing themselves to keep pushing without a compelling reason other than pride or boredom is a recipe for burnout, employee disillusionment and cultural implosion.