Leadership Across The Life Cycle Of A Business
Every city, organization and business has something in common: a defined life cycle. Take New Orleans, for example. US Route 90—a segment of the Ponchartrain expressway—cuts through the heart of New Orleans, linking the south coast of Lake Ponchartrain with communities below the Mississippi River. If you’ve traveled to “NOLA” before, you’re familiar with the east side of the expressway, as that’s where you find the business district and all the carousing of the French Quarter. The west side of the expressway—at least the immediate west—is a different environment altogether. Hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the “Central City” still wrestles with homelessness, underemployment, repopulation and inadequate infrastructure.
So why even mention the west side of the expressway at all? Because it’s part of the city. And because it’s part of New Orleans, its neighborhoods and stories matter to the vitality of the entire region. While this section of New Orleans lags far behind the economic strength of its eastern counterparts, it is rising in 2022 because of the vision and sweat of community leaders, business owners and concerned groups. The alternative to initiative-taking action in Central City is further decline and negative impacts across New Orleans.
This same principle applies to businesses. If you ignore one part of your business’s life cycle, the whole organization will eventually suffer from the decline and negative impacts of the neglected part.
The Life Cycle
Organizational theory describes the stages of the common life cycle as “inception, growth, maturity, and decline or revitalization.” A more nuanced, business-centric view of the life cycle might include stages such as seeding, startup, growth and establishment, expansion, and maturity or exit.
While most of us in leadership understand that our organizations and businesses move through the life cycle because of natural processes and disruptive events, our stakeholders—and even some of our colleagues—often find the transitions between the advanced stages to be anxiety-inducing or worse.
In my work in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) space, for example, I find that many “old school” or less progressive leaders continue to struggle with the idea that DEI work requires far more than hiring someone to hold an office and satisfy board policy. I’ve heard leaders utter under their breath, “We never needed this DEI stuff in the past.” Infusing a robust DEI program into your business—what we might call revitalization in the organizational life cycle, or maturity in the business-centric view—can be quite terrifying for those feeling very settled with the status quo.
But here’s the reality: Leaders lead throughout the organizational life cycle and across the organization. If you neglect one corner of the business or downplay a stage of the life cycle, everyone suffers, and your business may find itself on the exit ramp from the marketplace sooner rather than later.
Know What You’re Looking At
The most crucial step one can take in leading across the organization and through the organizational life cycle is to name and appreciate the currents that mark the various stages of your organization’s life. For this current context, let’s focus on the business life cycle.
At the beginning, you seed the business. This is the exciting, entrepreneurial stage of a business that leads toward the “big reveal” at startup. We all know what it’s like to be on the leading edge of a great idea and a brand-new company: It’s exhilarating. If the business makes it down the road a bit toward growth, establishment and expansion, then energy levels may remain high and the inertia to innovate remain palpable.
However, businesses get stuck when they reach maturity or get rocked by outside influences—like, say, a global pandemic. Here’s where leaders truly demonstrate their competence or ineptness. Organizational guru Sophia Fromell says that leaders equipped to lead through the maturity stage of the business life cycle “don’t let limiting beliefs control them.” This sentiment rings true in times of outside pressures or disruptive events. Leaders who are quick to announce that the sky is falling at the onset of a transition or disruption cannot lead across the business and through all the stages of the business life cycle.
Some leaders reach the exit ramp with their businesses and discern that it’s time to cash out. I admire anyone who does their homework and then makes the principled conclusion that it’s time to ensure a healthy ending for the business so that team members and stakeholders can move on with their investments and lives. However, most exit ramps mean that a business is mature and must reinvest if it is to remain robust and relevant. At this stage in the life cycle, there are many opportunities to return to the seed and startup stages of the organization’s life cycle.
Remember my comments about DEI work? This is an example of seeding and starting something new from a place of maturity. In my DEI leadership over the years, I’ve helped businesses understand that they can give birth to innovations on the human resources and community engagement sides of the “house” without gutting the entire business. That’s the power of reinvestment. One can make significant changes in an organization—for the good—without compromising legacy identity.
The important thing is to reinvest when maturity or disruption arrives. Doing nothing leads to certain death. That’s what is underway in New Orleans 17 years after Katrina: Areas that faced an exit ramp, like the Central City on the west side of Route 90, are now benefiting from the entrepreneurial spirt of longtime and new residents who refuse to let limiting beliefs control them.
Know the life cycle. Know where your business is on the life cycle. And be willing to reinvest when it’s time to do so.