Most CEOs steward their businesses, they maintain shareholder value and are satisfied to pass them on steady and intact to their successors. Growth leaders are different.

Often mavericks, they are unconstrained by the status quo and can paint alternative pictures of the future. They light fires under people, pushing and pulling organizations with them, unafraid to make difficult decisions and have difficult conversations. When they reach their ambitious goals, they raise the stakes even higher, learning and evolving to take on the next challenge.  

Here are four important traits of growth leaders that we can learn from.

1. They're ambidextrous

Growth leaders can execute today's business to a high level while at the same time identifying and developing the capabilities the organization will need for tomorrow's growth. They are, in a sense ambidextrous, able to focus both on the exploiting their present business to drive profits while they explore their future business to drive revenue growth down the line.

When Mark Zuckerberg realized how quickly the world would go mobile, he reset Facebook's strategy to focus on mobile-first, famously putting developing any new features on hold for two years. During that time Facebook continued to execute on its existing desktop platform growing its user base by over 400 million while at the same time developing the capabilities that would it need to dominate mobile with more than two billion active users today.

2. They lead outside-in

Growth leaders know that market orientation is a primary driver of growth. That means that they are externally focused; on their customers' needs and their future customers' needs. They are watching for market changes, cognizant of the competition and what it means for their business.

Pablo Isla, CEO of Inditex, parent company of Zara, is totally focused on his customers. Under Isla, Inditex expanded from 2,692 stores in 2005, to 7,013 stores in 2015, as well greatly expanding its online business. Zara's fast-adapter business model means they can react to customer needs mid-fashion season. He tells Harvard Business Review's Dan McGinn.

"It is not just a question of being fast but this concept of trying to know what our customer wants and then having a very integrated supply chain between manufacturing, logistics...and design is the essence of our business model."

Isla has also set up a fully integrated approach between the store and online business in response to the way that his customers want to shop today. With over 6 million visits to the company's sites and apps every day; Isla wanted to reflect the in-store experience online and make it seamless. This means, for instance, that a customer can buy something in Zara's online store and then return it in a physical store.

Get externally-focused: what do your customer want now, can you spot trends, are their needs changing? Is your market or environment changing, what are your competitors focused on, and how are they responding to these changes? Speak to your customers, organize field trips, collect data; the key is to create touch points to get people right across your organization listening to and understanding your customers.

3. They make hard choices and have tough conversations

When co-founder of Slack and Flickr, Stewart Butterfield, realized that his business would die unless they stopped all work on their gaming business and refocused 100% of their energy and resources on photo sharing app Flickr, he met resistance from his team. In Masters of Scale, Butterfield tells LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman that he bluntly told a fellow founder

'If you want to continue to get paid then there's only one way we are going to do this'.  

Butterfield knew that successfully pivoting from gaming to Flickr meant slashing and burning their existing business and getting fully behind the business they could grow.

Don't flog a dead horse, take a hard look and ask if your energy and resources are truly focused on activities that really matter to your growth. If not, then don't be afraid to stop them. Involve your team, even if it means having some uncomfortable conversations.

4. They adapt fast and learn fast

Growth leaders are adaptive; they look for opportunities in every situation and exploit them. This adaptive capability means they take onboard what they learn and then learn faster next time. These leaders see every challenge and adaption as a learning opportunity.

Steve Jobs became the poster guy for 'it's ok to fail' due to his impressive adaptive capability. After being fired from Apple he went on to found two companies; the highly successful Pixar and the lesser known NeXT. NeXT aimed to produce high-powered workstations targeted at professionals. Although it ultimately failed, Jobs brought much of what they learnt back to Apple and the work at NeXT laid the foundations for Apple's later technology like iOS and the App Store.

Develop your adaptive capability: take a hard look at your own skills and knowledge and think about what you need to develop to meet your goals. Frame every project, challenge, accomplishment and mistake as a learning opportunity. Ask yourself; what could I have done differently, what do my mistakes reveal about my limitations, how can I address them, what capabilities do I need to build so I can do this differently next time?

Published on: Nov 23, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.