How To Develop Growth Leaders, Not Polished Politicians

How To Develop Growth Leaders, Not Polished Politicians



By Dr. James Eyring, Chief Operating Officer, Organisation Solutions



Companies are great at ignoring, avoiding, sidelining, and even firing growth leaders. 


Take one of the largest IT companies in the world as an example. I spoke to one of their most senior HR leaders and she described how important communication skills were in being a top leader at the company. They looked for and promoted leaders with crisp, sharp communication skills who were verbally agile and could command attention in a room.  She and the company believed that this was critical to leadership success. As a result, the entire senior management team comes from the US, Europe, or Australia. They all communicate incredibly well in English, but this has not served them well as a company as this was not what they needed to grow in their markets. They have lost revenue for the past seven years, and the company is now 22% smaller than it was in 2010.  Their recipe for leader success is killing the company.


Growth leaders are often sidelined in other ways:

  • Rocking the Boat. Some growth leaders act like the sand irritating an oyster to produce a pearl. In pushing growth, they upset other leaders. I have coached many leaders to better collaborate and manage change after they pushed their organisations too far. Some of these were on the cusp of being fired before coaching, despite having some of the best growth rates in the company.
  • Ticked-off Bosses. Some growth leaders are transferred or managed-out because they fight for resources, disagree with or push back on their managers too often. Sometimes they stay in the company. Sometimes they leave because of the politics and take their growth capabilities with them.
  • Limited Opportunities. One global CEO sidelined a country GM’s career after a short, half-day visit because the GM “was not the right person for bigger roles”. The GM had over 100% revenue growth for three years. The GM left the company because his career options were limited and went on to have a highly successful career growing revenue for a competitor.


Failing To Spot Growth Leaders

Growth leaders aren’t always the best communicators. They don’t always get along with everyone, and they don’t always follow the rules. Unfortunately, companies often overlook these leaders because:

  • Their assessments don’t identify potential for growth leadership
  • Existing 360s don’t measure capabilities that growth leaders need
  • They don’t coach or develop them to lead growth the right way


These issues all start with a company’s leadership model. Existing models are often based on traits of successful senior leaders and best practices from other companies.  This results in backwards-looking models that ignore capabilities the company needs to adapt in an increasingly complex world.  These models also ignore growth leader capabilities


Growth Leader Potential Framework

Growth leaders think, lead others, and drive the business differently. Academic research1 and Organisation Solutions’ own research on successful growth leaders in emerging markets2 highlight many of these differences. This led us to create a Growth Leader Potential framework.  This model goes beyond competencies, and measures leader abilities, practices, and experiences.

Growth Leader Potential Framework


Our model includes several capabilities in three areas:  Build Capacity for Growth, Lead Others for Growth, and Focus Growth Efforts. As with any leadership model, the value of the model is in the specific capabilities and definitions that help companies identify, assess, evaluate, and develop leaders.  For this article, we explore three examples important in growth leadership.


Build Capacity For Growth

Growth leaders need to build their capacity for growth. One crucial area is resilience, which is the capacity of the leader and team to manage setbacks and failure and learn from these to increase future capability.  One growth leader I’ve worked with grew his division over 300% year-on-year for three years. During this time, he encountered customer loss, risk issues, process failures, and team conflict. He saw each setback as temporary, worked with his team to solve the problems, and kept his own energy reserves high through exercise. He continued to push his team, and they built new processes to create a high maximum capacity to manage new business. High-growth leaders need to be able to fail and recover and use this to continually increase capacity. Too often, companies and leaders instead set safe targets and remove leaders when they encounter failure.  


Lead Others For Growth

An important capability in leading others for growth is building stakeholder relationships across and up into the organisation. Many companies look for collaboration in their leaders. However, growth leaders need a slightly different set of skills. They often put pressure on other departments to perform and transform, and these departments push back. These leaders also often need more support from the senior leadership team to try new business models or to innovate. Growth leaders need to build these relationships and put pressure on others to support their efforts. In short, they need to be able to disrupt the status quo and build relationships at the same time.


Focus Growth Efforts

Growth leaders need to be able to focus growth efforts. Most leader models ignore the capability to manage opportunities and risks. Successful growth leaders pursue a portfolio of small opportunities (e.g., new customers, products, services, suppliers, etc.). If the small opportunities succeed, they ramp these up quickly. If the opportunities fail, they are replaced with other opportunities before sinking more investment into the opportunity. Having these opportunities helps growth leaders when they have to meet new demands or deal with a sudden change in the marketplace. They are more agile. Leaders who don’t pursue opportunities in this way simply don’t have options available when needed. 


Growth leaders can be disruptive and transformative. They grow the company through innovating, changing the business model and/or identifying new opportunities for growth.  Most companies need this, but often focus more on identifying polished politicians who can work well with others.  Instead of ignoring growth leaders, companies need to better identify and assess them, coach them to be effective and build their capabilities to have impact in the company. Companies need to make growth leadership a norm and expectation rather than an exception. This requires changes to a company’s leadership model and talent processes. However, the benefit can be a cadre of leaders that are much more prepared to lead in a rapidly changing world. 


1 For example: 

  • MacKenzie, Podsakoff & Rich (2001) Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.
  • Rosing, Frese & Bausch (2011) The Leadership Quarterly.
  • Covin, Green and Slevin (2006) Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.

2 For example:  Eyring, Alison (2017).  Pacing for Growth.    

Dr. James Eyring
is the Chief Operating Officer of Organisation Solutions. James has more than 25 years of experience in the field of Organisational Development, specialising in large-scale organisation design and change, leadership development, and the design and management of distributed organisations. Contact James


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