Growth at any cost.

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Picture the scene — a team meeting at a successful creative agency. In the space just shy of a decade and a half, the company had grown from two founders in a small office to a global concern with 16 staff and a stellar list of clients. On fire.

Ideas are flowing around a new campaign, but then, from nowhere, the sound of something that would trigger a fundamental shift in the business cuts through the creative buzz.

Hrrrrmm. Brrrrrrhhhhhhhrhrhrhrhrhrhrhrh. Pffffffffffffffffff….BEEP.

So what was the noise?

A blood pressure monitor, fitted to a member of staff who’d reported to their GP with signs of stress. A blood pressure monitor.

Devastated to learn what their colleague was experiencing, one of the founders dug deeper. Pressure from clients had grown so much that team members were being contacted out-of-hours on their personal phones, demanding instant updates and changes. Whenever they called.

And why? Because the clients themselves were under pressure from their own higher-ups. And those higher-ups? Under pressure from shareholders.

Layers upon layers of stress, pervasive right through the chain.

“Then, I realised: ignore the non-exec director and the FD…growth is an irrelevance compared to the wellbeing of the team.”

Drawing a picture in the corner

Moments like this are few and far between, but they make us stop and reassess what’s important in our professional, and our personal, lives.

We rarely question the perceived wisdom that, as businesses, we have to grow. We have to play our role in producing GVA, in creating jobs, and of course, in generating tax receipts. We’ve been conditioned to think that unless we’re stressed and therefore finding more aspects of our work unpleasant than pleasant, that we’re not contributing to the economy in the way that we should.

Because, we’re told, growth equals success.

Which, frankly, is nuts.

Gazing over at a busy studio stacked full of creatives — each with mouths to feed and rent to pay — another creative agency founder once told me, “I only ever wanted to sit in the corner and draw pictures. Now look.”

Ironically, creativity was the very thing that had been pushed into the corner; replacing it was the need to manage the sales pipeline, staff development, and work quality required to deliver growth.

So what if ‘just as we are’ is ‘just fine’?

And what if our growth ambitions lie somewhere else – in making the world a better place, or developing the talent and skills of those around us?

Hey, and precisely when did ‘lifestyle business’ become a derogatory term?

Guilty Pleasures

Trying to understand attitudes to growth amongst my contemporaries, without overtly saying “so tell me what you think about growth,” I’ve spent the last couple of months tuned in to conversations about business through this particular lens.

What’s been most telling is just how many company owners express feelings of guilt when they say they’re immensely enjoying working on a new area of business; launching a podcast, developing a video game, etc. That somehow it’s wrong to derive fulfilment from work that feels like, dare we say it, fun? That’s it’s kinda naughty to genuinely love what you’re doing?

It’s a negative way of thinking that’s become ingrained in our collective psyche: if you listen out, you’ll probably hear yourself doing it, too. But if guilt stops us from truly enjoying the work we do, how will we know when a growth path threatens to steer us away from the way we felt when we started?

Speaking to companies that have deliberately chosen to ‘stay small’, those decisions seem to have made them better able to weather the storm.

In part, simple economics tells you that a financial hit is easier to absorb with a lower headcount: just ask the Arcadia Group’s administrators. But a smaller company can be more nimble in its response, adapting to changing demands within the marketplace it operates in; rather than culling entire teams that can no longer function as a result of recent events.

Staying small gives owners another enviable advantage: choice. Not driven by the relentless wheels of growth, the option of whether to take a particular project becomes a question of fit, rather than absolute necessity.

Release the pressure

Growth is a given within a modern economy: the promise of a better future for our loved ones and our society is predicated on it. But as we find ourselves recovering from the pandemic that ripped up the rulebook, it feels that now is the time to re-assess our very definition of growth.

Until recently, to grow a business meant to start at a destination, to win more clients or customers, to build more revenue, to recruit more staff. Which requires more clients or customers, more revenue, more staff. Rinse, repeat.

As the pressure to grow builds, the pressure placed on the very essence of the business grows, too. If we’re not responding to emails and calls outside of ‘office hours’, how the hell can we stay on top? And, as with the creative agency in our introduction, that pressure ultimately has to release itself somewhere.

We need to think differently. The events we’ve faced recently have given us all a taste of working life quite unlike what we’ve seen before; indeed more balanced between ‘work’ and ‘life’. If they have any form of alternative, few will want to go back to a relentless day-in, day-out grind.

To start, fundamentally question what growth means to you. Understand yourself and your business – what’s the ultimate goal?

• Are you building a valuable proposition with a view to an exit? That’s fine, but what can you do to bring your team with you?

• Is the objective global domination, a nice holiday every year, or ongoing creative fulfilment in your work?

• A staff of 200, or something more ‘compact and bijoux’? If a company of one, or a team of two, is sustainable and ‘works’ – why change it?

It’s a question of what exactly we’re looking to grow, as individuals and as business owners; to grow financial profits at the cost of our collective wellbeing, or to grow the time we have for the things we truly enjoy?

Because that’s a choice none of us should feel guilty about making.

Co Contributor – Phil Birchenall
Image – Headway @unsplash

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