(Pt. 3) 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.


In Part 2, we went through the importance of a learning culture in times of transformation and growth.  To learn how to effectively transform into a learning culture,  click here. 


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.

Encouraging mistakes

Empowerment only works when there is trust, and trust implies accepting mistakes as part of learning. So, the key to create a learning culture is to encourage mistakes. Of course that doesn’t sound right, but it’s more than right.

The reality is, if something’s worth doing, it is worth doing wrong, at least the first time. We’re in a new world of constant change requiring new thinking and new solutions. The new mantra is, “Fail fast, learn fast and grow fast”. Hence the rational for a new “learning culture”.

Here are the new rules about mistake making. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you meet all three of these following conditions:

  1. You made a mistake in your effort to carry out the company’s mission.
  2.  You learn from the mistake.
  3.  You share your mistakes with everyone else in the company.

This third requisite is founded on a belief that people can learn vicariously from others’ mistakes and not have to repeat them.

Here’s a leadership question: Typically, what do people in your company do with their mistakes? Do they hide them or, as we see in many organizations, blame others for them?

If so, your company is being robbed of its intellectual capital. Imagine a company where, when someone makes a mistake, they ring a big bell and yell, “Gather around, I made a doozy of a mistake today, and I want to tell you all about it!”

Could that ever happen in your company? Most people say, “Never in a million years!”

Then this is how your worst nightmare will begin: You wake up one morning and find that your toughest competitor has learned to ring that bell, gather people round and share mistakes. They become the fastest learners in the market. They become the fastest to change. And they become the toughest to compete against.

How people in your company handle mistakes may be something you have never considered. So consider this: If they’re hiding them or burying them, you may know nothing about the caliber of mistakes being made in your business.

One of the most enlightening experiences going on in companies today is assembling groups of employees and asking them, “What are the 10 dumbest things we do as a company?”.  Reaching out to your team for their honest opinions and perspective can offer a tremendous opportunity for learning and change. But it can be painful and frustrating if you are not genuinely interested in creating a learning environment. Ego, politics, and self-promotion have no room in a company that truly lives the principle of ‘our people are our greatest asset.’

It’s only when we get beyond command-and-control and above the day-to-day problems that we can see the bigger picture – the patterns, trends, challenges and opportunities. It’s from this place of super-vision that leaders can start to be the kind of developmental leaders people are ready, willing and able to follow, not because the have to, but because they want to.


The way things grow in nature is through a complex system that includes the seed, the soil and the harvest.  Every organization implements strategies to grow their business to increase their yearly “harvest.” We liken these strategies to seeds of potential. In order for these seeds to manifest their potential, they have to be supported, nurtured and cared for by the soil (the critical environment in which they’re growing).  We call that soil the organizational culture

We define the culture as, “the formally or informally agreed upon beliefs and behaviors that are rewarded or punished within an organization” or, “the way things are around here.”  The point is that some of these cultural beliefs and behaviors are supporting the organization’s efforts to grow the strategy seeds, and some are distracting or even sabotaging the organization’s attempt to grow it’s strategies.  

It’s the leaders within the organization, from supervisor to CEO, who have the most influence in regard to “the way things are around here.” So, it’s primarily the leaders who create the cultural soil that’s there to support the strategy seeds of potential.  This means it’s the leader who has to change first before any of the followers can be expected to change. The short of it is, leaders go first.

Change requires leaders learning a new leadership model – one that requires the leader to be ‘change savvy’ and willing ready to lead change by first, throwing out the old command-and-control fear based business model. We all know that companies proudly claim ‘people are our most important asset’, but too often, their policies, procedures, mindsets and behaviors reflect something a lot less than that.

Think about it this way. I’ve said the leader’s job is to bring about change. Yet the culture’s job is to “keep things the way they always been”.  This is a built in mismatch every leader has to face and overcome. One of the most effective ways to break up this mismatch is to purposely create a learning soil into which you plant two essential growth seeds, the seeds of innovation and the seeds of continuous improvement. These are the key strategy seeds every organization must learn to implement.