I have seen many rules for business and market engagement change during Covid-19. I have heard stories of advancements and setbacks. I have seen champions and casualties. I believe that Covid or no-Covid, one rule for successful business has remained constant and will be more important than ever for those businesses that want to expand in the coming months and that rule is this:
Growth must come before expansion.
It’s a simple rule - but one that many get wrong and more often than not, it’s because entrepreneurs don’t realize there is a vast difference between the two. I know they sound very similar but they’re quite different by my definition and so I want to unpack this a bit more on the doorstep of 2021 in hopes that it will help you set a course for success in the coming year. As I usually tend to do, I’ll pull from the vast lessons taught to me by nature during my childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina - and this lesson is best taught by the trees.
Trees. I love them. I look after the trees on my property. The ones that are living are respected. The ones that have passed on are honored in that they provide lumber and heat for us. In this article, I want you to remember the most majestic tree in your memory. It could be from a trip to the redwood forests of California. It could be a stately maple from which you enjoyed the best pancakes in the world by their sweet syrup. It could be a tall strong oak that stood just outside your grandparent’s house. It could be a sprawling apple tree that provided sweet fruit in early fall, or a cherry tree that kept you puckering with its sweet and tart bounty. Whatever it is, recall it now. It will help me make an unforgettable point regarding growth and expansion.
With these trees, there is a universal law relating to its future health - success, if you will. Growth must come before expansion. Did you get it? Growth (up) must come before expansion (out). If you put expansion before growth, the tree will become top heavy and will uproot because there isn’t a foundation deep enough or broad enough to hold the weight. When a tree grows in the right soil and the right environment with the right amount of sunlight, something amazing happens - 3 things, in fact. Let’s start at the bottom with the roots.
Roots begin to tunnel their way into the soil looking for water. Their role is twofold. Not only do they bring moisture to the rest of the tree, but they also provide a foundation. The wider and deeper the roots go, the more moisture is delivered to the trunk and branches. While delivering life giving water, they are also strengthening their grip on the earth. The stronger the grip, the harder it is for the winds of change to push them over. The tree presses into the earth to increase its stability and its health. The roots are what’s under the hood. We can’t see the roots - but they are there. The general public doesn’t see the roots that are underneath - but make no mistake, there is strength and health in the depth of the foundation. How deep is the foundation of your business? Have you spent time driving down the roots of core competency? Of tenured staff? Of purpose driven engagement? The simple things. In a COVID 2021, without these roots, your tree is in danger of being blown over by the winds of work from home mandates, social distancing and a new type of engagement. How long has it been since you revisited the roots of your business? Can you define what type of soil your business needs to thrive? Can you determine the mineral content of where you are planted? How about moisture content? There is a reason that the shepherd planted his tree by “rivers of waters” in Psalms 1. Is your business planted near a source of flowing water? How wide and deep are the roots? Take a minute to answer these questions then we will move to the next vital part of the tree.
When I was a kid, we would measure a tree by whether or not we could wrap our arms around it. If it took more than one of us kids to wrap our arms around it, we knew it was a good strong tree. I can hear my pappaw describing trees on his mountain farm by saying, “It would take 3 men to go around it.” That meant it was a very big tree. The trunk is at the center of all that. When we would cut a tree, we kids would race to count the rings. This would tell us how old the tree was. I would get so excited when the number would get to 25, then 35, then 50, sometimes even 100! If that tree could talk, what would it tell us! The counting always starts at the heart of the tree. In the trunk. The broader the trunk, the deeper the roots. We don’t need X-ray glasses to see into the dirt to know the roots were there. The trunk proves it. The trunk is what stretches the leaves towards the sun for food. The roots are stretching out for strength and water. The trunk is pushing two ways: down into the soil and up into the sky. Ever wonder why there is bark? Well, for starters, bark tells us what kind of tree it is. It's the fingerprint of the tree. All bark is unique. But most importantly, the bark protects the heart of the tree. How broad is the heart or core of your business? Are there places where the bark is missing? How straight is the core of your business? Does it bend this way or that way? The straightest trunk is the tallest tree. Make sure your core is doing two things: First, your core should be driving down roots to ensure strength. If the roots are shallow, the tree will come down in a windstorm. Second, your core should be pushing upwards for light - for food. If your core doesn’t drive your business upwards to capture every opportunity for food, then your business will starve. Period. Your core must be pushing down for stability and nourishment AND pushing upwards for sustenance. Now let’s look at the highest parts of the tree.
I like to think of the branches and leaves as roots that are above ground. They reach for sunlight to feed the rest of the tree. They are receptors of life for the tree. Each one, no matter how small, plays a part in the health of the whole tree. In the right season, with the right conditions, these receptors will begin to produce buds. Buds are the flowers and for every flower there is a fruit. Fruit is your product or service to be enjoyed by those in need. How many branches are in your favorite tree? Ever tried to count them? Good luck. It’s nearly impossible to count all the thousands of receptors it takes to produce fruit. Are you getting it? An apple tree can only produce apples. A cherry tree can only produce cherries. A hickory tree can only produce hickory nuts. A black walnut can only produce black walnuts. If the roots are deep, the trunk is broad and protected by bark, the branches are numerous and the leaves are reaching toward the heavens for life and light, then the harvest will be abundant. Is your business aggressive to reach for its core competency? Are you seizing every opportunity to capture light for your business? If a tree finds an obstruction to light, it will grow around it or over it to reach the light. Grow around the things that are trying to stifle the light for your business. Shift. Pivot. COVID may be that obstruction. Pivot and grow around it. If you grow your trunk straight, then your branches will be above the obstruction of COVID.
I made a statement at the beginning that I will expand upon now, which was:
Growth must happen before expansion.
Why? It takes years for a tree to mature - and by this, I mean producing seeds that are able to germinate a healthy, strong replication of itself. If you try to plant an immature seed, it does nothing. If you watch the landscape, you will see seedlings coming up under mature trees. When the mature tree is ready, it will drop a new seed into the ground that is ready to replicate the DNA found in its heart. Your business can begin planting healthy replications of itself when your concept is mature. Grow first, then plant seeds that are ready. This is the natural order of growth and expansion. Do you see it? I hope so. I hope you start checking out how deep your roots go - making sure they are near a constant water source. I hope you begin measuring the width of the heart of your business - making sure you are intentionally pressing downwards and reaching upwards. I hope you push up as many branches for sunlight as you possibly can and that you determine, right now, to grow around the obstructions. If you do, you will surely have an abundant harvest and you will be able to look at expansion, naturally, in its own time and in the most healthy way … even in the midst of COVID.
Now, there is one more thing we didn’t touch on and that is the buzz of pollination, which I interpret as marketing and customer relations … but we’ll save that for another day. Until then, I hope you will consider these things and maybe even look at trees a little differently now, in light of all it takes to make them grow and expand! Here’s to a healthy, vital 2021 for everyone.
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