Three Lessons from the “Dark Side” of Growth

Today, decease more than a week since Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender was "let go" (read: fired) from the company he founded, this announcement arrived in my inbox:

photo courtesy of Tom Starkweather/Bloomberg

Read this carefully crafted message. Here's the gist: "Our co-founder Jeffrey Hollender's employment relationship with the company has ended."

How much does this feel like it's coming from a corporate legal team versus an entrepreneurial, trail-blazing, transparent company? And what message does this send to the hundreds of thousands of Seventh Generation devotees? These announcements teach us important lessons about the often painful transition from startup to growth mode.

When I interviewed Jeffrey in 2008, I, was impressed by his communications style – candid, approachable, and succinct. Seventh Generation's values, rooted deeply in this Inspired Protagonist's message of sustainability and purpose over profits, drove its strategy and marketing decisions on a daily basis.This latest whitewashed announcement on the Seventh Generation site certainly emanated from a different voice.

You have just witnessed the dark side of positive growth.As your company and brand become mainstream (e.g.; they become readily available through outlets such as Wal-Mart and Safeway, as we have seen with Seventh Generation), turnover, message manipulation, and brand confusion naturally happen. Founders with big dreams, much-publicized community engagement, and political aspirations get bored discussing processes, media protocols, and key performance indicators. This is perfectly natural. That doesn't make it comfortable for employees and board members.

Hollender eloquently reminds us in a recent video interview:

"People know in today's world that businesses are far from perfect.People don't expect them to be perfect…companies that fail to be transparent get caught…they rationalize keeping things secret and avoid publishing corporate responsibilty reports that highlight what's wrong as well as what's working…in many cases, they lose billions and billions of dollars in their brand (by not being truly transparent, and trying to control their message).Seventh Generation has tried to be a pioneer in 'radical transparency' – radical to the point of our lawyers jumping up and down and yelling."

In today's world, it's hard to create an authentic company that isn't deeply transparent. The Internet is creating radical changes in communications, but, as we saw from this recent blog post, some companies are just not embracing the shift.

Here's what Hollender's hasty departure teaches us:

1. Founders need to know when it's time to leave.

In fact, if you are the founder of your company and love the adrenalin rush of running a startup, enjoy it while you can. Much like the seasons, the rush is fleeting. Seasoned executives are waiting to replace you. And that's okay. Do not overstay your welcome. And for goodness sake, don't tell people that you plan to die at your desk. I actually met a CEO in Washington State who was relying on a 72 year-old body and a pacemaker to keep him going. His son, his appointed president with no authority, was not inspired. Highly talented people will not be impressed by such selfish, stoic attitudes. They will leave before you do.

2. Waiting too long to honestly respond to major company changes takes its toll.

Read the dozens of rants on the Seventh Generation blog, and you will see what I mean. Taking a full week to announce the departure of their chief visionary on their blog created more harm than good.

3. If your intent is to build a billion dollar business, release your own identity from your brand as quickly as possible.

Sure, exceptions exist. Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mary Kay, and Herb Kelleher have embodied their company brands for decades. Valuations soared. Notice, however, that nearly every one of them can proudly point to bench strength and brands that stand on their own two feet. Would you stop flying Virgin Airlines if Richard chose to retire? Probably not. And I believe these leaders are exceptions to the rule. It is possible that the Seventh Generation brand and Jeffrey Hollender personality were too tightly intertwined.

Seventh Generation has made our lives better, and may just make it through this dark period of growth. I wish Jeffrey all the best in his new endeavors.He has much to give to the world.I will miss his contributions to conscious capitalism, his passion, and, most of all, his transparency.

For the full story, visit

(and don't miss the brief video from the FastCompany "Innovation Unleashed" conference)

Copyright 2010, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.


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