The Finish Line: Three Questions to Foster Top Line Growth

I just completed a highly interactive, fun half-day growth planning session with several of the titans of Finnish business.  The general economic malaise that Greece has generated has clearly instilled a sense of trepidation among many of these leaders. In light of the recent barrage of natural disasters, economic crises, and Senate hearings, how much are these companies willing to take risks and grow?

In Finland, the CEOs I met are deeply concerned about the future of their economy. Rightly so. Although they are very committed to international trade, they are not innovating at a rate that would propel today’s startups towards rapid or top line growth. Their economy is heavily dependent on a few large companies, such as Nokia, Onninen, and Stora Enso. My friend Kirsti Lindberg-Repo, a seasoned Adjunct Professor of Marketing at Hanken School of Economics and five-time author, has tested this. At a recent seminar, she asked Finnish CEOs “What holds Finnish companies back from becoming the next Nokia?” One response caught her by surprise: “The CEOs themselves do not want to grow.” In other words, they are happy running a slow-growth company as a lifestyle business.

Kirsti Heikki & Lisa at Kosmo

Kirsti Lindberg-Repo,  Heikki Lehmusto, and Lisa at Kosmo Restaurant in Helsinki

Petteri Kilpanen offers a completely different view. As CEO of TBWA/Helsinki, one of the top five advertising agencies in Finland, he refuses to accept slow growth as the answer. “Three years ago, our operation employed 50 people.  We found ourselves competing against many other agencies for advertising campaigns. I decided this was not enough to help Finnish companies. I wanted to shift our focus from providing advertising and marketing strategies to helping them grow their businesses and think bigger.”

That’s exactly what he and his team accomplished. Over the next three years, the company developed innovative educational programs. They grew 30 percent annually and expanded to 300 professionals. They proudly work with organizations such as Nokia, Apple, and Nordbank.

Ask these three questions to assess your own tolerance and preparedness for risk and growth:

1.  Which projects or growth ventures are draining our company or threatening our growth potential? If you’re like many entrepreneurs, you may have fallen prey to the feeling of “we cannot afford to say no to any client business this year,” and may have inherited your competitors’ nightmare clients.

2.  What shiny pennies are destroying our growth potential? Shiny penny syndrome is a chronic habit of becoming easily distracted by new ideas that appear on your “business sidewalk.” It’s easy to be blown off course and seduced by the latest fad (e.g. social media, anyone?)  Continually focus on what you do best. Allow for some flex time in your daily tasks, just in case a great opportunity or unexpected situation arises.

3.  What stage of growth are we experiencing, and what can we do to scale the next wall? Unless you understand what stage of growth you’re facing, your key performance indicators (KPIs) won’t mean anything. In fact, they will just create busy work. Be clear on the emotional and political dynamics that a startup faces, and how they differ from a rapid growth company or a business facing its end of life phase. Be clear where your company fits on that life cycle map. (you can find the “Stages of Growth” map in my book).

As the economic turnaround continues, you must outline a growth plan that fits your values and vision.  And you need to dig deep to find the courage to invest in new top line generating ventures. Without them, you will never see the “Finnish line.”

Copyright 2010, Lisa Nirell.  All rights reserved.

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