(Pt. 2) Grow or Die: Four Stages of Transformation

This article was written by our late mentor, Larry Wilson, Founder of Wilson Learning. To learn more about how Larry inspired our business, read our article The Story Behind Above + Beyond.


In Part 1, we introduced George Land’s Growth Model and explained the four stages of enterprise transformation. To see where your company lies on the Growth Model, click  here. 


According to George Land, author of Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today and a former colleague at Wilson Learning, every business grows in the same way. Understanding George’s growth model gives us an excellent foundation for a discussion of transformational change.

A new kind of leadership

What is required with any transformation is a new kind of leadership. This means a leadership that understands, believes and puts into practice the policies, systems and structures that reflect the belief that people are the most important resources of any company. It also means leadership that expects and encourages all associates that follow to (at appropriate times) take on the role of a leader, step into the fire and do what they believe is the right thing.

This is easy to write about, but not so easy to accomplish. Why? Because most of us are still under the influence of 10,000 years of control-and-command management thinking and old game rules. So, here’s the big question leaders need to ask themselves: How are we going to shift to a new and more effective kind of leadership, a new focus we call developmental leadership?

Unless a company can embrace transformational change, stage three usually leads to death, sometimes slowly, usually quickly. Facing this change requires a fundamental shift in the mindset of the company’s leadership, which must precede changes in behavior. If executives are willing to go through this personal challenge, the company can launch the beginning of a new S curve.

Transformation into a learning culture

So how do you begin this transformation from a company on the ropes, to one that welcomes change? There are some basic cornerstones that must exist in any company committed to learning.

The first key is this: You must trust your people. That’s a big shock for most leaders, because their sole experience in phase two has usually been command-and-control leadership. But a phase-two style won’t work in a phase-three situation. Leaders need to listen to and empower people, helping them assume more accountability, and responsibility. To grow a business in phase three, you have to grow your people.

Letting go of command-control

Change must start with the leadership. Leaders must move from a fear-based command-and-control philosophy to trust-based developmental philosophy. Leaders will have to be the fastest learners and expect the others to follow their lead. Leaders will have to deeply understand that leadership is about someone following someone else because they want to, not because they have to. In short, leaders will have to lead.

The difficulty is that we are dealing with 10,000-year-old thinking that’s keeping us stuck. The classic structure is the hierarchy: Caesar at the top and a lowly private at the bottom.

This hierarchy doesn’t represent just the military but all of our institutions – schools, governments and businesses. This structure didn’t appear magically; there had to be certain beliefs in place – ones that would encourage this structure to become and remain dominant for so long.

Try this. The first belief was ‘I, Caesar, have all the answers. Your job, private, is to do the answers. Yours is not to reason why; yours is but to do and die.’

The second belief was ‘I, Caesar, do not trust that you, private, will do what you are told.’ The private is going to be asked to do some pretty unpleasant things like charge this battalion, take that hill. ‘I, Caesar, know I wouldn’t be to excited to do many of these things, and neither will the privates. Therefore, I, Caesar, am going to have to control you, private, to do what you don’t want to do.’ So the third belief was control.

The primary motivational tool of the hierarchy is fear-based control. Information is given only on a need-to-know basis, and severe punishments are instituted for not doing what you were told.

Empowering the employees

The key component of a learning culture is making the shift from ‘do what you are told’ to ‘do what is right.’

Today’s reality is that Caesar no longer has all the answers, and even he knows that. The world is just too complex, changing too fast. There are too many emerging, contradictory trends. Reluctantly, Caesar now has to turn to the private and say, “Do what is right.” That is a huge shift for both Caesar and the private. It means that Caesar must now trust that the private has a brain and is willing and able to use it. In most situations, the private is closer to the action and, therefore, smarter than even Caesar about what is happening.

In some ways this phase three is like revisiting phase one. We are in a new environment – one we have never seen before. But it’s more difficult because we are carrying our past on our backs. In phase one, we didn’t have a past to slow us down or have to deal with the fact that what got us here may not take us where we want to go.

So the private is being asked to take risks and make choices – something he never had to do in the past. The implicit old employment contract was ‘do what you’re told, work hard, don’t question authority and in return you will get job security.’

The old contract is dead. This begs the question, ‘What is the new contract?’

The answer begins with two observable facts:

1) For most people, work is not their highest priority or the most important part of their life, and

2) people spend most of their waking hours at work.

This paradox opens the door for crafting a new work contract that takes this apparent problem and turns it into a win-win opportunity for everybody. 

The essence of this new contract is about ‘the culture’ and, more specifically, a culture committed to development, which begins with learning. The promise of the new contract is: Come work here and we’ll help you learn to master critical, core, ‘new world’ skills that will allow your work to be more efficient, effective and joyful… good for the company and good for you.

This new contract puts the ‘power’ in empowerment.


For Part 3 of Grow or Die: Four Stages of Transformation, click here.