I recently had a conversation with an entrepreneur who was enjoying great success in his first two years of business, and very excited about future growth opportunities.

When asked for my perspective and advice, I shared some of the experiences I’ve had through amazing clients, over the years – some do’s and don’ts, and big mistakes – including running a business instead of growing a business. This usually happens for two reasons:

  • Always being on the front lines, dealing with customer needs, concerns and frustrations can be exhausting. If a CEO has been focused there for 5, 10 or 15 years, stepping back can be a break
  • Creating order from chaos can consume you because there’s so much other stuff to do. You can easily stay busy forever with projects, cleaning up systems and planning for the future.

The challenge is to be OK with a small amount of messiness so that you can continue to dedicate the energy needed to grow the business. If you put too much energy into optimizing or administering, growth normally slows down. As in the 4 Forces of Growth model I recently shared, you can either be in the Improvement quadrant or the Growth quadrant – and you have to fight to stay in the Growth quadrant.

4 forces model

So, what does that look like? It looks like the leader of the business spending time talking to and getting feedback from customers and people in the market (vendors, partners or potential partners) to get sense of where market is going – and the insight to deliver additional products or services, or to modify existing ones, to make sure you’re doing a good job of meeting your customer needs in a way that’s more competitive.

Some prime examples:

  • A CEO we work with recently was thrilled to say they had been doing well over the past few months and wanted to know what was driving this new business. As they dug deeper to really understand, they found that the transactions were with customers who were different from usual – and realized that, if a new customer was buying today, they could ask a bunch of new, proactive questions to find out more, and potentially change their approach to business.
  • Another CEO called me a few years back when growth had stopped. As I dug in to understand why, in a booming economy, I noticed that, although they had a great system for customer feedback, no one was reading or responding to it. On the way out of the door, I asked for a copy of the feedback to read on the way home and was shocked to hear how angry the customers were on three consistent issues. No one was paying attention, the issues weren’t getting addressed and the company was frustrating and losing customers. People were voting with their dollars.

Management on the Front Lines

This reminds me of the well-known term “Management by Walking Around” (from in Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr.) – to which I’ll add “Management by being on the front lines so that you can really understand what’s going on from the perspective of customers, competitors and the market.”

Yes, there’s a whole bunch of things to approve and administer in a business but you want to make sure you don’t get lost in it – and keep enough energy on things that matter and keep your business growing.

The Challenge

  • How appropriate is your ratio of how you spend your time between growing and improving or running your business?
  • Based on your aspirations, how might it change?