I am seeing first hand with one of my clients what growth looks like. It’s tempting to focus on the thrill of expanding and implementing new concepts, but the learning curve isn’t always pretty and growth isn’t always easy. It reminds me of my first startup. We were making an innovative product that improved healthcare and our particular technological approach was making us a lot of money. But we were sloppy in our manufacturing process and sloppy doesn’t work for long in a competitive marketplace. So we did some tough re-prioritizing. We replaced our initial focus on creativity and spontaneity with a new aim toward reliability and sustainability. It required discipline and structure: before we could have a thriving business, we had to make the shift in ourselves as leaders and in our business culture.
My client opened two restaurants last quarter. They aren’t franchises: each one is unique and the vitality of the business is fantastic! Hiring, purchasing, and marketing have exploded. Training is an almost daily activity. People are hired and, once their fit with the company is assessed, a few leave (occasionally in the same pay period). Communication—and sometimes miscommunication—abounds. The tables are always full, reservation lines busy. They’ve been riding the updraft and enjoying the buzz. Now, as things start to settle down, new needs are emerging including clearer roles and responsibilities as employees step up to new positions that didn’t exist four months ago. The founders’ original passion for great food and exceptional service is being matched by more internal order and consistent quality. Leaders are growing along with the business.
There are many resources for small business leaders around their ‘hard’ business needs. Beginning over 20 years ago, many premier business schools began entrepreneur studies and today the field is respected and substantial. But what about the ‘softer’ skills of leadership? What exactly does it mean to be open to growth? I’ll use a quote from Andrew Cohen, founder of EnlightenNext, to describe both the excitement and the challenge of leading a new product or service into the world:
“When we speak about creating a new culture at the leading edge, beyond the status quo that we are embedded in, we don’t necessarily know what it is supposed to look like. That’s understandable—after all, it has not yet emerged. And we don’t need to have a completely clear picture of where we are going. What we do need to know is what it means to disembed the self from that which is inhibiting its potential … And as we free ourselves, … we will begin to see where it is that we are going. What is necessary, first and foremost, is to free the self to make this heroic journey.”
– Andrew Cohen
It is indeed a heroic journey to risk what has worked in order to be open to new perspectives. Is it surprising that an entrepreneur’s own leadership growth can parallel that of their business ventures? The quest to see what is possible—for instance, to discover what difference we can make in our industries—is always front and center. It certainly was for me back at my startup, Biox. We were trying to transform Pulse Oximetry—and we did! Arterial blood oxygen levels were more available, resulting in better patient care. But, to me, the mystery of who leaders will be when they have succeeded is even more stimulating.
This kind of personal growth can serve as a key driving force for entrepreneurs. It’s sort of a Catch-22: In order to realize your potential you won’t really know how you must stretch until you’ve arrived. But it’s hardly just a waiting game. Ask yourself what new qualities and skills you want to emerge. Find someone who will be honest with you about your impact. Pay attention as your business unfolds before you; listen as it calls forth your growth as a leader.
For all entrepreneurs, whether you’re opening a new restaurant or launching a new product, that call for your own growth as a leader inevitably comes. It might be when you are bumping up against demands you aren’t quite prepared to meet. Or it can be when everything’s going great but you’re not sure what’s next. Those are the times to open yourself to grow. Leaders who leverage their strengths, let go of old ideas, and develop new capabilities poise themselves for success beyond their wildest dreams.
Photo by Alex E. Proimos