Business leaders' overriding imperative is to drive sustainable growth. That's because growth creates opportunities for the most talented people to develop their skills. If business leaders channel their people to provide the best service and the most valuable products, customers will flock to the company and keep buying over time. That dynamic will fuel revenue and profit growth -- that makes shareholders better off.

When the pandemic hit two years ago, few anticipated that business leaders would be able to adapt their organizations to keep them growing rapidly as most people quarantined -- working and shopping from home.

Surprisingly to me, one business that did this well was Boston-based life insurer, John Hancock. According to the Boston Globe, John Hancock -- the U.S. subsidiary of Manulife Financial Corp. of Canada -- enjoyed 18 percent growth in insurance sales in 2021 to $628 million.

How can business leaders create such sustainable growth? I've identified seven scaling levers in my book, Scaling Your Startup, which include:

  • Sustaining culture
  • Building growth trajectories
  • Raising capital
  • Redefining job functions
  • Hiring, promoting, and letting people go
  • Holding people accountable
  • Coordinating processes

For an established company seeking to spur rapid growth, leaders should identify the subset of these scaling levers that will be most useful. Here are the three that John Hancock CEO Marianne Harrison used to drive its growth and the lessons you can take from what she did.

1. Sustain culture by connecting more deeply with people.

To keep operating, many companies sent their workers home. While technology enabled them to do their jobs, they lost the emotional connections to colleagues that comes from being together in an office.

To counter that loss of emotional connections, leaders found new ways to sustain their organization's culture. One way Hancock did this was for its executive team to create home videos. Harrison's videos showed her making pizza on a Saturday night and dropping a Peloton off at an employee's home as a company contest reward.

Harrison did two things that resonated particularly well with employees. First, she shared for the first time that she had four children and her struggles at home. Second, she practiced engaged listening to "really understand [employees'] circumstances and what motivates, engages, [and] drives" them.

Sustaining culture keeps workers emotionally engaged with the organization. From that engagement the organization can provide great service and invent new products that keep customers buying.

2. Revitalize growth by offering new products that customers crave.

Once people are engaged, leaders must envision how the company will grow. To that end, they should map out where their industry is heading -- identifying the tailwinds that will propel more rapid growth and new headwinds that might impede growth.

In early 2020, it was not clear whether the pandemic would be a headwind or a tailwind for Hancock's core business of selling life insurance. Luckily for Hancock, the pandemic made people contemplate their mortality -- boosting life insurance purchases to a record $3.3 trillion, according to the Globe.

But Hancock was not merely a passive beneficiary of that industry tailwind. Harrison bet heavily on Hancock's Vitality program, which rewarded customers with discounts and Apple watches for exercising and eating right. Vitality contributed dramatically to Hancock's 2021 growth and is expected to yield higher revenue in the future as its healthier customers pay more premiums as a result of living longer lives.

The takeaway? To sustain fast growth, orient your company to benefit from powerful tailwinds and supply products that customers value more than competitors'.

3. Improve the customer experience through digital transformation.

To sustain growth, companies must keep customers happy by supplying their industry's most satisfying customer experience. To that end, Harrison better coordinated Hancock's processes through an $850 million global digital transformation.

This investment paid off in making it far easier for people to work from home and by enabling Hancock to underwrite more policies online. Before the pandemic, 30 percent of its people worked from home and because of its digital transformation, during the pandemic 100 percent of them could have done so.

What's more, digital transformation enabled Hancock to get more efficient at evaluating the risk of taking on a new life insurance customer or making a loan. Before the pandemic, only 4 percent of the underwriting process -- from application to medical record verification to policy issuing -- was done online. 

Hancock streamlined underwriting during the pandemic way more than it expected. In 2021, 40 percent of Hancock's underwriting was done online -- which reduced its costs and gave customers a much faster and more effective insurance purchase process.

Business leaders should take a page from Hancock and make their processes more efficient so that customers can get what they need more quickly.