Darwin John: Growth Done Right

A few years ago, I attended a session at which management expert Peter Drucker was speaking. At the end of the presentation, one of the participants approached Drucker with a personal question. He said he had a son, a senior in high school, who was trying to settle on what to study as he tried to envision his future and career. The man then asked Drucker what he considered to be the most promising fields of the future that his son should consider pursuing. I will never forget Drucker’s response: “You asked the wrong question,” he said. “What are your son’s strengths and natural gifts? What he decides to pursue in his life and in his career should be aligned with those gifts. Then he will be successful.”

Just like this well-meaning father, well-meaning executives ask the wrong questions about growth—and in doing so miss the true opportunities awaiting their companies as the economy expands. Traditionally, businesspeople have thought of growth as entering an expanding market or adding a new product in hopes of increasing revenues. But that’s only one of four dimensions of growth, and it is not the most important. What does growth really mean? Successful growth starts with being clear on what our purpose is, and on what we want to accomplish as a corporation. This is the most important dimension. The second most important is being clear on what strengths we have that we can leverage to that end. Without purpose, growth is meaningless and chaotic; without strengths, successful growth is impossible. Only when we’ve determined the first two should we turn to the third: what we might add in terms of new product lines, acquisitions or capabilities. The fourth dimension of growth is determining what products, product lines or companies we need to shed because they lie outside our corporate purpose or strengths.

I can vouch for this approach. When Phil Lippincott became the CEO of the Scott Paper Co., in 1982, I was the CIO and, later, the member of the executive committee responsible for strategic planning and corporate development. At the time, Phil looked around and determined two things: One, that Scott Paper was a global business; it was not two separate businesses, a domestic business and an international business. We needed to think about how to optimize the business as a whole. Two, we needed to become better focused and put a growth strategy in place. So, using this approach to growth, we asked ourselves a series of questions: What were our core strengths? How did these core strengths distinguish us in the marketplace and from our competitors? Some strengths were papermaking technology, the management of papermaking technology and the capabilities of our commercial paper sales force. Still others were some of our products and brands, such as Scott towels and Scott tissue. The next question we asked ourselves was what abilities or products should we add, by developing ourselves or acquiring other companies, that would complement or round out our core strength. Finally, we asked what businesses or products do we now have that don’t really fit this core strength? Scott, like many companies in the decade before, had diversified widely.

In looking at our strengths, we decided Scott Paper should focus on two business areas—tissue-based paper and printing paper—and that we should roll out our brands into more countries with the help of creative advertising. We decided we needed to look globally at where we had an edge in papermaking technology, and then to introduce these technologies to plants that didn’t have them, in or outside the U.S., to reduce costs. And we decided to shed some businesses—leisure furniture, lighting fixtures and foam rubber—that didn’t fit well into that pattern. It was a good plan; according to BusinessWeek, by 1990, the year I left Scott Paper, the company had become the world’s largest supplier of toilet tissue, paper napkins and paper towels, with sales of $5.4 billion in some 20 countries. (This was four years before the board of directors appointed Al Dunlap—commonly referred to as “Chainsaw Al” —as Phil Lippincott’s replacement.)

In the years since, I’ve realized that this approach to growth applies just as well to coaching individuals, or organizing teams of people (such as the team that makes up the office of the CIO), as it does to corporate strategy. For the CIO, the first step is to help people or teams become clear about their purpose or mission. After that, he or she should identify the strengths of the individual or team. The CIO should think about the talents the individuals or team members may have, and the capabilities they possess based on their experiences, training or academic background.

Once these strengths are identified, consider what they might add in terms of new knowledge, disciplines or ways of thinking that can complement their existing strengths. The final step is to identify what might be getting in the way and should be shed. Again, these are habits, behaviors, ways of thinking and so on. In the case of the office of the CIO, the members might need to add more of a team mind-set and collaborative leadership approach and move away from a command-and-control leadership style. Shedding would mean the offloading of CIO responsibilities to other members of the team by matching roles to the strengths and weaknesses of the members.

For corporate strategists, looking at how to differentiate your company—and at what your company needs to do to make the most of that competitive edge—is one of the most pleasurable challenges of the role. But in business as in personal life, the hardest part, both intellectually and emotionally, is letting go. It’s easier to see those areas in which we feel like we do better than our competition, but it’s always hard to admit where we don’t. I think one of the biggest follies of many leaders in business is hanging on too long when something isn’t going as well as they’d like. The inclination of too many leaders is to say, “I’m the best problem-solver ever, and I can fix that.” They continue to try and fix something until long after they should have cut their losses and moved on.

The same goes for people. In one of my earlier positions, I knew a man in the information-and-communications department whom I’ll call Robert Stevens. His career goal was to be what we then called a liaison to our customers. This required excellent communications skills. Robert’s accent was such that, at times, it was difficult to understand what he was saying. He was taking night classes at a university to improve his ability to speak and communicate. I remember sitting with Robert and trying to help him accept the thought that one builds a successful career (and I would add a successful life) by leveraging his or her strengths. We all know people who probably spend their whole lives working on their weaknesses. I believe we need to overcome our weaknesses to some level of acceptability, but success does not come by overcoming weakness. Success ultimately comes from building and leveraging our strengths. Robert had great technical strengths. He accepted the notion of shifting his career objective to leverage his strengths, and his career took off.

To survive as a person, a team or a company, growth is required. But it must be based on purpose and strength, as well as on an honest appraisal of weaknesses, or it cannot be sustained. That’s a good point to keep in mind as CIOs participate in their company’s strategy sessions. It would be a shame to pursue an expanding market only to see it collapse when the next economic slowdown occurs, and find yourself asking: “What could I have done differently?”

Darwin A. John has held CIO-level positions at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Scott Paper Co. He is currently an advisor to the director of the FBI and to Blackwell Consulting Services in Chicago.

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