Six strategies for growth outperformance

| Podcast

Growth is the lifeblood of any successful business, but achieving growth that is both profitable and sustainable has proved especially difficult in recent years. Business leaders need a strategic approach that combines courage, innovation, and a willingness to make bold moves. In this episode of the Inside the Strategy Room podcast, McKinsey partners Rebecca Doherty and Kate Siegel and senior partner Jill Zucker share their insights on how companies can grow faster and more consistently than their peers. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. For more discussions on the strategy issues that matter, follow the series on your preferred podcast platform.

Sean Brown: This may seem like a naive question, but why does growth matter?

Jill Zucker: Growth drives performance. It drives culture. It drives employee satisfaction. It helps you retain the best talent. And it fosters innovation in the marketplace. But it’s important to grow profitably. Top-line-only growth tends to catch up with you over time. And while most organizations aspire to grow, we find that growth is quite hard to achieve. Only 25 percent of companies grow sustainably over time. But if you can achieve it, that growth is rewarded, with sustainable growth outperformers generating seven percentage points more annual total shareholder returns than their peers.

Sean Brown: What does it take to be a growth outperformer?

Jill Zucker: We studied what drives growth at more than 4,000 companies around the globe, and we found a set of ingredients that are true across industries. We recognize the challenges that companies are facing today because of the global economy, so our research spans a period of ebbs and flows in the economy.

The first thing that we found is that it’s important to wake up in the morning and actively choose growth. We meet many executives who say they want their companies to grow, but they don’t allocate resources to support that growth over time.

You also need the courage to make bold moves, even in a time of economic uncertainty. In previous decades, you could choose not to pursue growth in a temporarily challenging environment. These challenging events, however, have become so pervasive that we need to have a through-cycle growth mindset. During the financial crisis, the gap between those companies that chose growth and those that stuck to maintaining the core business was reasonably narrow, but as the economy settled, that gap significantly widened. You saw a much steeper growth curve among those that had made bold bets during the downturn.

Sean Brown: How do you ensure that the pathways you choose lead you to the intended destination?

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Jill Zucker: You need to lay the foundation for more dynamic resource allocation, by which we mean both capital and talent. It means being careful in your culture to shut off projects without shutting off the talent. Just because a talented executive pursued a good experiment that didn’t work out doesn’t mean the executive should leave. Talent remains scarce in many business areas, so it’s important to allocate it to growth projects. It also means allocating resources to areas you are convinced will grow and eliminating the hobbies.

Secondly, you need to think about inorganic opportunities—both acquisitions and divestitures. The third part of the foundation is building functional capabilities, whether it’s marketing or digital or innovation.

Sean Brown: What strategies do you find growth outperformers pursue?

Rebecca Doherty: We looked at what companies have done both during the uncertainty over the past five years as well as over the longer term and found six differentiating strategies. One of the timeless approaches is to continue innovating in the core. Eighty percent of growth comes from maximizing the value of your core [exhibit]. But that’s not enough to put you in the echelon of companies that achieve growth on a sustained basis. To achieve that remaining 20 percent, you need to move into adjacencies in your value stream, such as new geographies, and build breakout businesses.

The core business accounts for approximately 80 percent of growth  across sectors.

The third timeless element is putting people at the heart of what you do, whether it’s day-to-day growth or a broader transformation. Having your core people involved in growth initiatives with an ownership mindset is critical.

The three strategies that have emerged in more recent years include building an innovation culture, using sustainability as an accelerant to growth, and portfolio reallocation, including what we call shrinking to grow. The bold moves you make could include divesting assets where you may not be the best owner and then reallocating those resources toward growth opportunities.

Sean Brown: You talked about the timeless growth strategies. What makes them timeless?

Rebecca Doherty: The ratio of growth that comes from the core versus adjacencies or breakout business is pretty consistent over time. We’ve also found that companies that grow in all directions over a ten-year period have double the chance of outperforming their peers.

Sean Brown: How do the strongest growers embed an innovation culture?

Rebecca Doherty: We ran an executive survey of more than 1,000 companies, and I was surprised, frankly, to see how important innovation is across all the growth paths. Historically, people think of innovation as a way to turbocharge the core business. But leading growers look just as much at innovating new offerings and permeating that mindset through the company.

Sean Brown: Many companies still see sustainability more as a cost than a growth generator. How do you envision it accelerating growth?

Rebecca Doherty: We’ve found that if you already have growth and profitability in place, sustainability can be that extra punch that gives you a lift over your competitors. Sustainable growth is not a substitute for profitability, but companies that have been able to embed sustainability in their businesses have been rewarded. Perhaps intuitively, those that deliver growth and profits show a five-percentage-point outperformance in TSR. If you add ESG [environmental, social, and governance] into the mix—and this isn’t dabbling but integrating ESG priorities into your strategy and sharing the messages with investors—you see seven points of outperformance. In some sectors such as retail, you have brands that have brought sustainability into the core and have done strings of acquisitions over the years to drive impact.

Sean Brown: How do you balance the bets on breakout or adjacent growth against building up the core? If 80 percent of the growth comes from the core, should that much of your investment go there as well?

Rebecca Doherty: It depends in part on the maturity of the business and where you are on the growth curve. If it’s early, you should focus on propelling that core growth strategy. If it’s a mature business and you’re only making incremental gains, maybe you look to invest beyond the core. How much you invest does matter, though. Companies sometimes simply take last year’s budget and tweak it by a few percent. For a breakout business, sometimes you need to invest more—and not just more money. I worked with one company that put its chief technology officer into the new business to help grow it. The initial investment in dollars wasn’t large but the investment in talent was.

You should also think about the investment in stage gates. Some bets may require a large up-front investment, and you will not see much revenue for a while. Others, you could start with smaller investments, and the funding could grow proportionately with revenue. Different profiles can work, but it’s important to have a sound business plan, understand the operational and financial milestones, and be willing to pull the plug if it’s not panning out—which is a bold move in itself.

Sean Brown: Reallocation of resources includes both people and capital, but people tend to have incentives. How do you maintain incentives when you’re moving somebody from a stable business into a riskier growth project?

Rebecca Doherty: It ties to what Jill said earlier: a failed business doesn’t mean a failed executive. The culture needs to reward risk taking, and management has to accept that you won’t have 100 percent success. In terms of incentives, you can align an individual’s incentives to delivering the project, but also implement incentives that reward thinking about what is best for the broader company.

Jill Zucker: We see some management teams reward managers uniformly on EPS [earnings-per-share] growth of the business or total shareholder return, and therefore whether you’re innovating or you’re maximizing the core, you are rewarded equally. It’s not about giving more money to one person or another but about what will grow the total shareholder return. This encourages managers to give up some capital for innovation if they believe that doing so will improve the company’s growth.

Sean Brown: Can you elaborate on how companies should pursue growth through adjacencies?

Kate Siegel: Finding growth outside your core business is challenging, so we looked at how growth outperformers approach adjacencies. Our sample was about 250 companies that had announced significant adjacency moves over the past 20 years. We found four types of rationales, or approaches, that underpinned these moves. The first was based on customer relationships and the knowledge of customers’ pain points. The second was capabilities, where companies could use their existing assets, people, or processes in new markets. Expansion into the value chain—going upstream or downstream to capture various synergies—was another rationale. The last one was finding opportunities for disruption and business model innovation. What’s interesting is that the more approaches they used, the higher the reward, and that included both outperformers and other companies.

Sean Brown: How do companies identify those adjacencies? Is it based on experience and team discussions, or do they use tools?

Kate Siegel: There is a variety of data you can scan on trends, technologies, changes in preferences. You can also consider similarities of your offerings to certain businesses and capabilities. For example, we recently helped a software company that was struggling with high competition find diversification opportunities. We used AI to scan unstructured online data to identify more than 500 growth ideas based on the value creation approaches . Another set of AI analyses helped prioritize the opportunities based on trends, news mentions, momentum, and patent intensity to give the management team a short list of ideas. The company then considered which were the best fit, what talent they would need, or whether the market was big enough. One of these ideas was one they hadn’t talked about before. AI is a powerful tool for challenging orthodoxies.

Sean Brown: One strategy we haven’t yet touched on is shrinking to grow. What does that mean?

Kate Siegel: We know only about 10 percent of companies are able to maintain positive growth rates across a decade. But suppose you don’t have this consistent growth engine. The next-best strategy is to periodically prune back your portfolio and then grow healthily from a new base. You divest parts of the business one or two years out of the decade, but in every other year, you grow from that new base. We’ve seen that work in some conglomerates, where they regularly look at their portfolio to see if there are less attractive assets they could divest and then reinvest the proceeds into ones that could be better platforms.

Sean Brown: What if the businesses you want to prune have some star performers? How are companies thinking about that talent dimension?

Kate Siegel: Divestitures typically have key-member clauses to ensure business continuity, but you can take steps to understand which talent you would like to retain. The worst thing you can do is not think about talent when you sell a business, because it could have the best technology officer for a new growth entity you plan to reinvest in.

Rebecca Doherty: When we consider an acquisition, we often think about it as one plus one equals more than two. Likewise, when we think about divestitures or spinouts, it’s usually not two minus one equals one, because you’re not the best owner of the business, and someone else might be, or it might flourish on its own. Separations might not only give you proceeds to reinvest but also help the other entity perform better.

Sean Brown: Once you have laid out the various growth paths and developed strategies, you need to execute them well. What does excellence look like for execution?

Kate Siegel: People are at the heart of a successful transformation. Transformations that activate the full organization are eight times more likely to succeed. In addition, those in which more than 20 percent of employees owned transformation initiatives saw nearly twice the excess shareholder return than their peers did. Once you have the right aspiration mindsets and culture, with clarity on the growth pathways, the most important thing is to involve as many people as possible in the growth effort. That includes getting everyone aligned on the growth aspiration, building the skills they need, having leaders consistently talk about the growth targets, and implementing processes to verify whether the bets are working.

Sean Brown: Are you optimistic that companies can revive growth?

Jill Zucker: There is not a single company I can point to that’s not focused on growth today, despite the economic backdrop. When I think back to other periods of economic uncertainty, the hunkering down, the fixation on the core, the focus on efficiency were much more at the forefront. Now, growth remains a priority.

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