Most business owners and leaders want more growth. How do you grow a business? Let's first take a strategic perspective.

There are two kinds of growth: top-line and bottom-line. You can grow a business's top line, or revenue, by acquiring more customers and by selling more products and services to existing customers. While more revenue should increase the bottom line, too, you can grow the bottom line independently through activities that boost efficiency and productivity.

There are four ways to grow--through improvements, innovation, scaling, and acquisitions. I believe that improvements--doing things better, faster, and cheaper--are a necessity (note that a business can improve without growing). A business either continually improves or dies.The second approach to growth is innovation--doing something very new or different, something that represents a big change for your business. The third way is by scaling--doing more of what you are already doing. Scaling can result from expanding geographically or obtaining many new customers quickly or a few very large customers quickly. Lastly, you can grow by acquiring more customers or acquiring more products and services to sell to existing customers.

Using this basic framework, you could formulate a growth plan by listing top-line and bottom-line initiatives and then categorizing them by approach. That is a strategic way to think about growth. It's important, but it's not sufficient. Growth of any kind usually involves more customers and more employees, so let's shift and think about growth from a people perspective.

Enduring, profitable growth depends on acquiring loyal customers, and that requires highly engaged employees. One thing that we know from research at top business schools such as Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia is that high employee engagement is highly correlated with happy, loyal customers. And research by Gallup demonstrates that high employee engagement is also highly correlated with caring, respectful, fair treatment of employees by managers and leaders. How you treat people affects your ability to grow.

What produces highly engaged employees and highly loyal customers? Empathy and caring, trusting respectful relationships--in a word, LOVE!

For some executives, this represents an entirely new mind-set and new behaviors. It's about thinking of employees and customers as people, not just as a means to make money. It's also about treating them with respect and in ways that build trust--trust that you will do them no harm, that you will treat them fairly and help them achieve their goals.

Business is not just about you and what's in it for you. Business is also about them and what's in it for them. You can demonstrate that by truly listening to others, seeking their input, relating to them as individuals, putting yourself in their shoes, and, with respect to employees, helping them meet their needs for autonomy, personal growth, relatedness, and being part of something meaningful.

This kind of relationship requires you to be present--not multitasking, not planning what you will say while others are speaking to you, not thinking about all the things you need to do. It means not being focused on getting what you want: making the sale or getting an employee's agreement on some matter. It requires quieting your ego so that you can engage emotionally, with empathy.

If you are a successful entrepreneur (one who has survived the start-up process) or business executive, you might believe that you succeeded because you are better than those who did not. You might underestimate the extent to which others helped you. As you have succeeded, your self-confidence has probably grown, and you may believe you have the answers. Perhaps arrogance and self-centeredness have set in-- attitudes that make it difficult to relate to others in a caring, empathetic manner.

So here is an additional way to think about growth. Growth is about building caring, trusting, meaningful relationships with employees and customers.

Growth is much more than a strategy--it is also about people.

Published on: Sep 8, 2014