Have you ever had this experience?  A friend mentions their intention to buy a certain type of car and then – suddenly – you see those particular cars everywhere.

This isn’t magic, but a matter of attention, and it’s the easiest part of you for others to hijack and control without you even realizing it.

The mechanisms of human attention are brilliantly demonstrated by Robert Cialdini in his seminal book Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion, one of my all-time most recommended reads for business leaders.

Our biology evolved such that what we pay attention to grows in importance to us. This was critical to survival when, thousands of years ago, a rustle in the bushes nearby often meant something with sharp teeth and claws was eyeing you for lunch. Today, it’s more critical to those seeking your attention via advertising, social media, the daily newscycle, etc.

Although you don’t need to worry about being eaten anymore (most days, at least), you should be hyper aware of how and when your attention is hijacked. Why? It costs you a lot: We chase red-herring issues, we burn precious time on others’ agendas, and we wind up delaying our own achievement.

In my book Activators, I discuss attention at length. We humans are undisciplined and inconstant creatures and we’re absolutely awesome at getting in our own way. Mastering your own attention helps you rise above this and is essential for sustainable achievement, particularly in our era of information bombardment and overload.

Signs You’re in The Growth Trap

Running your business feels like a frustrating vicious cycle – you take 3 steps forward and then 2-3 steps right back again. It may also feel like you’re spinning too many plates at once, and it’s only a matter of time before they start to fall when you’re too exhausted to keep them all going. You know there is a way to make it all work, but you haven’t found it yet. And wouldn’t it be great if you could?

What is the Growth Trap?

 You are stuck in the Growth Trap when you cannot fully leverage your organization to generate the results you want. Instead, growth and the accompanying increases in organizational complexity demand more of your energy and time when your would rather operate in a way that gives you more freedom and a significantly greater return that isn’t directly tied to your own, individual efforts.

Root Causes of the Growth Trap

There are five root causes of the Growth Trap, each of which must be addressed to create sustainable, profitable growth.

1. Increasing Complexity, Decreasing Alignment

As your organization grows more complex, it becomes increasingly difficult to put knowledge and understanding into practice. It’s not about “what” to do (in most cases the leadership knows this) – it’s about executing to get it done. Many talk about this; few actually pull it off – because they don’t know how to neutralize the complexity that inevitably creeps into a growing business. An inability to instill discipline, accountability, and alignment – all requirements for consistent execution – condemns many organizations to mediocrity (or worse).

2. Lousy People Decisions

Getting people decisions wrong creates massive headaches for you and stifles virtually every element that should be generating growth in your organization. People decisions including hiring, advancement, role assignment, and who to invest in and develop are best guesses, not data driven. The absence of a process and tools to accurately measure “soft” skills and capabilities prevents optimal leverage of your #1 (or in some cases #2) expense item. Getting people decisions correct dramatically improves staff quality, engagement, accomplishment, and retention – not to mention your own happiness! Consider – How many of your employees would you enthusiastically rehire if you could do it all over again?

3. Increasing Competition, Decreasing Margins

Growth and success is a double-edged sword. The competition is taking more notice of you and putting you on their radar, which means that you might not be as comfortably differentiated as you once were. At the same time, some of your long-standing clients are beginning to pressure you to offer some combination of better pricing and more features / services. Both of these inevitable trends – not to mention your increased overhead due to Lousy People Decisions and Increased Complexity – lead to decreasing margins.

4. Cash Flow Pressure, Decreasing Profit

Growth consumes cash. Pressure on your margins decreases profit, making matters even worse. Your Cash Conversion Cycle (CCC) is the elapsed time between when your business spends a dollar and when it gets that dollar back (hopefully with some profit) in the form of collected revenue. Inattention to the CCC can starve your business of what it needs most to grow! Even worse, insufficient cash flow severely limits your options and provides little cushion for the inevitable “bad news” events that befall even the most successful enterprises. Many things in and around your business have changed; now it’s time to change how you think about your CCC to break free and accelerate to the next level.

5. Leadership Stagnation

Because of root causes 1-4, it is virtually impossible for you and your executive team to spend enough meaningful time thinking about and focusing on the future. Rather, your time and energy are consumed “fighting fires” from the past and in the present. You and your team must grow for your business to grow. Failing to acknowledge and act on this condemns you to insular thinking, less innovation, and an inability to react to competitive and environmental threats. As a result, your team spends most of its time stuck in the past at the expense of your future. All strengths and weaknesses in your organization can be traced directly back to the leadership team and your levels of trust, competence, discipline, alignment, and respect – each of which requires continual care, planning, and development.

How to Overcome the Growth Trap

First, realize that you are absolutely impacted by one or more of these elements regardless of the current level of performance of your business. There is always something you can do to improve and/or accelerate your path to the outcomes you seek.

Begin by identifying which of the five root causes is having the most impact on your ability to grow the business and identify resources – books, seminars, friends, or a coach – to help you permanently overcome it. If you’re unsure where to start, ALWAYS begin with Leadership Stagnation. Your growth and the growth of your team MUST precede sustainable growth in the business.

One final note from my 16+ years in the trenches: I’ve met tons of CEOs who began a change initiative on their own, only to engage an outside expert later on. In each of these situations, the universal reaction after the fact is a wistful acknowledgement that they should have hired a professional from the start. Though engaging an expert was certainly more expensive than the do-it-yourself approach, these CEOs more than made up the difference via saved time, less frustration, and better, more rapid results.

How often have you been in a work environment that feels like you’re running full out on a treadmill, where everybody — from the front lines to the CEO — works hard, but the view never seems to change? Super frustrating, right? Everyone is sweating, yet it feels like there’s hardly any meaningful progress being made in the business.

How many times have you been at an annual planning session and struggled to recall the goals and metrics you set for the year? 

Or my personal favorite: When was the last time your organization fell short on a major project or missed a key deadline and when you went to investigate why, somehow nobody was accountable? 

Individually, it’s incredibly easy to write any of these examples off as “part of doing business.” It makes sense, even. 

It makes sense that sometimes communication breaks down and that sometimes we lose track of progress. It makes sense that sometimes it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly who is accountable for things. 

After all, the world of business can often feel erratic and unpredictable. 

The problem is, these conditions negatively impact your organization, slow growth, and accelerate burnout. This is why as leaders, we must step back and consider the root cause of why these things happen.

As a business and leadership growth coach for the past 16 years, I’ve found that even the largest, most sophisticated, professionally-led businesses struggle with one common denominator underpinning all of these frustrating conditions: accountability. 

This is why I decided to write Creating a Culture of Accountability. In it, I share the things I’ve learned after years of coaching business leaders around the world who represent a wide variety of industries. 

Depending on industry, location, and who you ask, a business can spend as much as 70% of operating expenses on people – employee compensation and benefits. Whatever the percentage for your particular business, the implications of increasing the return on your people expenses are quite compelling. Accountability is the way.

So what exactly is accountability? 

Accountability boils down to ownership — ownership of understanding, communication, and risk management. It’s not necessarily the same as doing the work, however. An accountable person will be the first to point out when something is forecast to be off track, or whether they’ve made a mistake, for example. They’ll inform you of the possible risks and obstacles that lie ahead and they speak up to be heard. An accountable employee owns their outcomes.

One fascinating aspect of accountability is its self-propagating nature. Leaders who foster a culture of accountability don’t just improve the performance of their own employees, they attract more high performers from the competition — sometimes even from other industries. It’s a self-sustaining positive feedback loop because high performers love the rigor of a high accountability culture!

The inverse is also true. Increasing accountability weeds out people who don’t belong in your organization. These folks are the low performers who hide in the shadows, avoid work, fear challenge and change, shunt responsibilities to others, lack consistency, and place their own interests ahead of their team and the company. They avoid high accountability environments like the plague!

A culture of accountability enables effective execution, retains high performers, repels low performers and will improve the sense of collaboration, winning and fun in your business. This cycle drives significantly higher employee return on investment (ROI), giving you more flexibility to scale and attain your most ambitious aspirations. You and your team will be off the frustrating treadmill and advancing the business with relative ease!

The need to improve accountability in almost every organization is clear. I wrote Creating a Culture of Accountability to show you how.