How “grow” became a four-letter word

Apr 11, 2021

Most leaders haven’t taken the time to reflect on their reasons to grow and, once understood, articulate them to others.

“Grow just means more work for me and more rewards for you.” This is an increasing lament from practitioners to principals across our industry. What went wrong and, more importantly, how can we fix this?

There are many great reasons to grow as an organization and here are four I think most people can get behind on our teams and in our firms:

  1. To stay in business. On a very basic level, projects don’t last forever. No matter how great a project is, it eventually comes to an end. We need to grow in terms of projects and clients just to replace the ones we have.
  2. To create advancement opportunities. If we want to attract and retain great talent, we need to provide career growth and development opportunities. To do so, we need to grow beyond just the “replacement projects” that keep everyone busy. We need sufficient additional new growth to allow talent to “stretch” and take on new roles.
  3. To make a difference. Whether through a well-defined mission, vision, or set of core values, we want to make an impact. We want to solve problems and create new opportunities through our work and success and, if we’re really good, feel compelled – and even a moral obligation – to help as many clients, people, and communities as possible.
  4. To create jobs and leave a legacy. We want to employ and develop as many great people as possible who, through our work, have an opportunity to support themselves and their families and to contribute to our greater good and society overall.

Where does this begin to breakdown?

First, most leaders and leadership teams haven’t taken the time to reflect on their reasons to grow and, once understood, articulate them to others.

Question: What are your reasons to grow? How have they changed or evolved, and what does that growth mean to you and others both inside and beyond your organization?

Creating the conditions for more welcomed and sustainable growth will require greater investment and better results in the following key areas:

  • Unity. Do you have an attractive, engaging, inspiring, and widely embraced mission, vision, and set of core values? Do you have a diverse enough group of stakeholders? Have you defined “winning” on individual, team, and organizational levels that results from growth? If not, how can we make the adjustments needed to get us all on the same page and excited about “more.”
  • Capacity building. Burnout, overwhelm, and related disengagement continues to limit our growth. Continuously putting more “on the plates” of others without specific processes and systems to increase production while maintaining and enhancing the quality of our work – and increasing our opportunities for success – adds stress, inefficiency, and ineffectiveness. There’s a major cost to inaction. “Hoping” that things will just work out and providing “lip-service” about change erodes our ability to succeed. Taking action to build individual, team, and organizational capacity is the only way to stop the erosion, better attract and engage talent, and increase firm value. Building our capacity requires the development of better processes and systems and more strategic training, development, and onboarding. Both “hard” and “soft” skills are needed to manage and succeed through growth and our changing times. These investments can also help us to scale and even move us into the development of “products,” as well as better position us to take advantage of the emerging professional freelancer and independent contractor gig-economy. Investing in such capacity allows us to flex our business model to better leverage our knowledge and add more specialized skills and well-qualified production capacity on-demand with little to no cost.
  • Strategic focus. How does our current and future growth fit into our organization’s near and long-term success and impact strategy? Where specifically is our growth leading us? A well-designed, communicated, and embraced strategic plan is key to connecting our growth and business strategies to other critical new era success elements related to culture, diversity, innovation, and sustainability. Together, they establish and maintain the framework for success. Certainly, one or a handful of people can help initiate and maintain growth for a while, but in order to truly sustain and scale it, we need others: other leaders, managers, and virtually all other employees in our organization supporting our growth initiatives.

It is up to leaders and leadership teams to create the conditions for growth. One way to do so is to purposefully and proactively “A.C.T.” in terms of:

  1. Having “Authenticity” in a desire for strategic and sustainable growth benefiting as many stakeholders as possible.
  2. Truly investing in “Capacity” development at individual, team, and organizational levels.
  3. Being committed to “Triggering” new action to meet current needs while continuously positioning ourselves for the better future of our choosing in line with our greatest capabilities.

Peter C. Atherton, P.E. is an AEC industry insider having spent more than 24 years as a successful professional civil engineer, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for high-achieving firms. Pete is now the president and founder of ActionsProve, LLC, author of Reversing Burnout: How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners, and the creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process. Pete is also the host of The AEC Leadership Today Podcast and leads The AEC Leadership Mastermind. Pete works with AEC firms to grow and advance their success through modern and new era focused strategic planning, executive coaching, leadership and management development, performance-based employee engagement, and corporate impact design. Connect with him at

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