Talking About a Plan is Not a Plan

This is the story of three companies - each started with a founder that had a good idea and decided to bring it to market. Each started small, a basement, a storefront or a small workshop. Each became a leader in its industry and enjoyed a very good reputation. Each of these companies beat the odds of dying. But each had significant differences in mindset, learning and culture.

One company grew slowly for 70 years transitioning from the founder to the sons to an independent subsidiary of a huge multi-national company then bought up by its competitor and closed down. In its heyday they were an industry leader and product innovator but lost its purpose by installed presidents that managed by the latest business trends and buzzwords rather than listening to the voice of the customer.

The second company started with a new method of testing driven by passion and created a market that was successful for nearly 20 years but languished in want of a plan for the next 5 years while draining cash, losing its status and reputation, with the founder unable to make decisions or give up control to take the company back to its leadership position. The company has a new owner but continues the old ways of the founder with the prospects of a so-so company for another decade or more.

The third company also had a founder with a new idea for measurements and took his company from a store front with 5 people to a fast growing multi-divisional public corporation with offices around the world. All in just 25 years. It continues to innovate and be a leader in all aspects of its various business units.

What is the difference between them?

It is my belief that these three things made the difference: first is a growth mindset of the founder/owner; second is encouragement of improved skill sets by everyone; and third a culture of growth and innovation shared by the management team and all of the employees.

Growth Mindset

Abraham Maslow said “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.“ To put this into a sports analogy - are you playing to win or playing not to lose.

A growth mindset is the continual drive to keep going and not settle. To not sit on your accomplishments but to continue to build those accomplishments. As Seth Godin says “the pursuit of better.”

It should be your job to yourself, and you to your team, to think intentionally about making improvements, to look for a 1% increase in productivity each day, to be consistent each and every day toward improvement. For another sports analogy, if everyone is hitting base hits, you can win the game without a home run.

If the owner doesn’t have this type of mindset, doesn’t care about getting a new product out the door, hiring people that are better than themselves, or allowing people to try, fail, relearn and try again, then the company is relegated to the average at best, to the dustbin at worse. A growth mindset is the difference between go-go and so-so.

Improved Skill Sets

In a Harvard Business Review article titled Mind the (Skills) Gap the take away is “the lessons learned in school can become outdated before the student loans are paid off.” The skills learned in a bachelor’s degree program will have an average shelf life of five years. Another way to look at it is from Mark Niemann-Ross that said “In four years, you’ll have to relearn 30% of your job.” This is just the education side. Think of the seismic changes in communication in the last 10 years. Of computing power. Think of the learning acquired and thrown away as the internet was born and continues to transform every day.

Most people would be intimidated by this. Others see a way forward and think of how they can grasp the tow rope that keeps moving up and onward. They are not satisfied with themselves and continue to learn, unlearn and relearn. They realize that today’s best will not meet the challenges of tomorrow. There is a curiosity of things, customers, technology, markets, that drives them to learn.

Your skill set, both depth and breadth, will set you apart from your competition. And when your team is continually improving and adding to their skill set they become a dynamic, unstoppable force. Learn something different, try something different, find something better, see something bigger. Sergio P. Ermotti, Group Chief Executive Officer at UBS put it this way, "The most crucial point ... is the importance of lifelong learning. Whether graduating from university or completing an apprenticeship, learning shouldn’t stop the moment a person walks out the door."


Culture begins at the top. The president, owner, CEO, founder. The highest rung on the ladder. There was a terrific article in HBR about how an investment company that eventually bought out the owner because no matter who was put in as president, the owner would go behind their back and micro-manage and pit individuals against one another. Whoever the new president was they were already set-up to fail. The owner was the source of the toxic culture. The only way to deal with it was to buy out the owner and retool everyone in the company. They favored fit over qualifications. They let people go that weren’t committed to the purpose and mission of the company and were known to contribute to the previous toxic culture.

Continuing a positive culture can be challenging. We want to hire people that can do the job that is needed. We look at their accomplishments but rarely look at whether the individual will mix well, have the same ideals, the same commitment to the company purpose. When there are 2 candidates for a job, vote in favor of the individual that fits in over the other with the qualifications. Since you are learning organization, that lower qualified candidate will get there. And they will get there in a way that will benefit everyone and the company. It is said culture beats strategy and that creating a positive, growing, learning culture is your best strategy. In a another sports analogy, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016 because of the new, success oriented, “we’re in this together” kind of culture. They collapsed in 2019 with most of the same star talent as in 2016 but the culture had changed to “I need MY numbers for free agency next year”.

Back to our three companies, of the two companies that were not as successful, they had things going well for a while. But since culture beats strategy they couldn’t keep it going. I can tell you personally that a growth mindset, learning environment and positive culture contribute to overall success. If those three qualities aren’t there, you will have a company fall from go-go to so-so to so long.

So please ask yourself - Which one are you and which one do you want to be? It is never too late to change.

QUESTION: What was your biggest takeaway from this story, or from this post? Please share your comments!

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