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Growing Talent Development Firms: Growth Is Sometimes Painful

Friday, July 23, 2021

As I noted in a blog post I wrote a few years ago, growth is a natural evolution of our existence. All organisms, human and otherwise, grow until they either are killed, die of natural causes, or make a conscious decision to die. This is the basic premise of the 1973 book Grow or Die by George Ainsworth-Land, which the author applied to the evolution of organizations. While one normally thought of as a natural positive process, growth can also be painful to the point that it unravels the existing organism to the point of no return. As such, it can provide a series of difficult hurdles to overcome, leaving visible scars or self-inflicted tragedies. On the other hand, controlled growth can establish a foundation for long-term sustainable success if it is planned properly.

There are many pathways to growth, which were shared in a previous blog post, and studies that have documented their successes. But how do you avoid the potential for the pain often associated with growth? How do you keep from creating the proverbial success-disaster—a state of being that creates such unbridled success it crumbles right in front of you, rarely to be recovered from?

Here are three simple actions to take.

Define It

First, you need to understand what growth looks like for you and your business. How will you describe it? What measures will you put in place to track it? How will you know you have achieved your expected growth? Growth can be multipronged in its personal, professional, and business descriptions. Granted, these are not always mutually exclusive in that one may feed the other and look quite different when consciously untangled. That is, your personal and professional growth could be a direct function of the growth of your business, but these could also be somewhat separated from the latter. For example, you may decide to engage in extracurricular activities or take on hobbies or lessons for activities outside your professional or business realms.

You also may decide to professionally pursue advanced degrees or certifications related to your business but not necessarily critical to its growth. For example, enrolling in an executive MBA program, going to a related conference, or watching TED Talks. Understanding the extent of desired growth you want and need in all three of these areas and articulating the extent to which they relate to each other is part and parcel to defining your growth needs. By defining the growth you want, you will be in a much better position to take on the next step: managing and controlling it.


Plan It

Without first defining what you want your growth looks like, it will be difficult to manage and control it. Determining the most appropriate growth path for you will depend on the definition you have embraced. Controlled growth is the most important aspect of managing your business for the long-term. This requires discipline and commitment to stay the course you have established. Most young organizations, especially those founded and led by entrepreneurs, find themselves in scenarios where their successes and failures are not well understood and thus offer no source for self-correction.

Those continuing to be successful despite the lack of systems and processes to sustain that success often face a time when they are unprepared for further growth. They hit the proverbial wall, having not thought ahead to anticipate the necessary changes required of their business to continue growing. As a result, the weight of their success in the absence of the systems and processes to sustain it creates a disaster that brings the business to its knees. Planning for growth and then managing it over time is one way to avoid that disaster taking place. On the other hand, and perhaps more often, failure is simply due to the fact that no measured planning took place in the first place. There is no pathway, or if at all an unpaved one, to the future. Pulling out from this abyss is sometimes impossible but more likely improbable, resulting in the business ceasing to exist unless a concerted effort is made to learn from the past.


Learn From It

There are so many signs of impending success or failure and their respective implications for business growth that it’s almost impossible to avoid recognizing them. They are in plain sight but often end up with “eyes wide shut” in their presence. When we ignore what’s happening and avoid observing what is clearly in sight, we can’t learn from our mistakes and successes and use these as the springboard for future defining and planning for the growth we desire. Ideally, it is nice to have all the answers as we embark on our growth journey, whether personal, professional, or business-related. But this is rarely the case. Given growth is a continuous process, so should be its observation. And, as Ainsworth-Land notes with his S-curve, the three growth phases of forming, norming, and transforming repeat themselves. So, there is little excuse for not capturing those actions that worked or didn’t in the past and applying these lessons to the future.

There you have it. Three simple ways to avoid the potential pain of growth. The questions are:

  • How have you defined your growth path?
  • What have you done to manage and control your growth?
  • What have you learned from you past successes and failures that you can use to ensure you don’t inadvertently become a success-disaster?

For more insight, check out my book The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

About the Author

Steve Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His latest book is The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

He can be reached at: 952.942.7291 or or at his website: