Last year, marketer Neil Patel told Inc. readers that "Growth hacking has reinvented business as we know it, and provided quantum leaps forward in strategy and business success."

I couldn't agree more.

From my own work on client campaigns to the way we build marketing and product teams at my agency Web Profits, I'm seeing the impact this new focus on growth has on business every day. And, unfortunately, as growth marketing has become more and more sophisticated, it's also becoming harder to do successfully.

We're quickly reaching a tipping point where, if you aren't familiar with growth marketing principles, you'll be left behind, both in terms of your career prospects and the results you're able to generate. That goes for everyone, in every department - product managers are just as critical to a growth focus as marketers and designers are.

To better understand what it takes to become a cutting-edge growth executive in today's competitive marketplace, I reached out to Susan Su, Head of Marketing at Reforge, which provides training and development for advanced-career professionals in growth roles spanning marketing, product management, and engineering.

Today's Growth Environment

"I do think that growth is getting harder. It's not the Wild West anymore," Susan shared in our call. "In those Wild West situations, there's more risk, but there are also more opportunities to land grab. We aren't in that phase anymore. Channels are saturated or nearing saturation. Competitors are smarter and well-tooled. Customers are weary and wary. They've gotten more sophisticated about the number of ads they're being overwhelmed with."

The "Wild West days" Susan referred to were the times when Airbnb could hack its way to a $31 billion valuation using referral marketing and some clever Craigslist scripting, or when Uber could hit $69 billion (scandals aside) without ever becoming profitable. And it's not that the techniques used by these companies and other tech success stories aren't viable anymore; they're just old news now. It takes more than a single tactic to move the needle for growth these days.

If you want to become a top growth executive, you need more than a few tricks in your back pocket. Based on her experience working with Reforge's Growth Series cohorts, Susan shared three key characteristics for growth success - both in today's crowded environment and through the next 5-10 years of growth evolution.

A Growth Mindset

When describing what constitutes a growth mindset, Susan shared four primary factors: "It's being dedicated to iterative improvement, to outcomes and to being agnostic to specific processes. It's also a focus on consistent and repeatable process, as opposed to one-off hacks or things that'll move the needle once, but never again."

What I love about these factors is that they aren't limited to any single department or job function. Marketers and developers will be familiar with the idea of iterative improvement, but that's something any department - from accounting, to customer service, to research and development - can learn.

Further, Susan went on to argue that ownership is necessary to the development of a growth mindset, saying, "People will do what they're rewarded for. If people don't have ownership of specific metrics, you get the opposite of the growth mindset." She gave the example of a product developer who builds the features that'll move the company towards its established growth metrics versus one who builds the features he thinks are coolest.

It's intuitive which outcome will lead to stronger growth, and it's a point that isn't mentioned often enough when we talk about facilitating growth in organizations.

Comfort with Data

Data is, obviously, a big part of growth. Without raw data to be analyzed, you can't understand where your company is in relation to your target metrics - and you definitely can't move towards them.

Where Susan sees executives going wrong is in emphasizing the importance of data, but not actually taking action on it. She says, "Everyone loves to be a friend of data, but what does that mean? For growth, that means performance, rather than impressions. These are things people haven't mastered. They're things we all say: 'Oh yeah, we know how to do that.' Well, why aren't you doing it?"

Ultimately, it isn't enough to talk about data and growth best practices. You have to actually walk the walk as well. The importance of doing so can't be understated. According to Susan, "In the next five years, data is going to be more and more paramount. If you don't have a way to collect and sort and utilize data as part of your ongoing marketing strategy, I don't think you can compete. Your competitors are doing it, and they're probably doing it better than you."

An Understanding of Consumer Psychology

Data is important, and there are more tools than ever to help you parse and understand it, but data and tools alone don't lead to growth. Knowing how to use them, Susan explains, comes down to two core basics:

"First, understanding people's behavioral psychology. That's the foundational underpinning to everything else you can do. Every hack, trick, ad or email marketing campaign needs to be founded in an understanding of general psychology and your users' psychology. The other basic thing I think never gets old is understanding the decision flow from initial contact to purchase and what that process looks like for your prospect."

Learning consumer psychology isn't hard, but it does require that you make it a point to listen. Don't assume you know what your market needs without evidence to back it up, and don't become so narrowly focused that all you see is your success - not the things your customers need from you.

There's a lot that goes into making a successful growth executive, so if you have any other suggestions to add to this list, leave them for me in the comments below:

Published on: Jul 25, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.