10 characteristics of growth champions … learning from Apple and Google, Amazon and Samsung … they are ambitious, disruptive, and fast

August 18, 2016

Growth Champions is a global research project seeking to track and interpret the best ideas for growth.

20 global companies were studied in detail, each having successfully built a culture and strategy that delivers growth and beats the competition. The companies included Apple, Google, Amazon, Samsung, Rolls-Royce, Procter & Gamble, Shell and Lego. While many share some common traits and ambitions, they differ in how they formulate and execute their strategies, how they engage people, how they build their growth culture, and how they develop and use distinctive competencies to keep them ahead of the pack.

The research shows that success is not just down to the nature of the firm, nor is it due to the decisions that are taken in terms of how, where, and why to play in different fields. Success is driven by the unification of culture and strategy around the growth ambition and then linked to the competences and capabilities available to the company. The profiles and analysis all point to sustained growth being an integrated outcome of these two very different issues into a coherent and well-focused whole. The key lessons can be summarised into six groups:


  • Passionate leadership really matters, even in a mature business. A leader who is prepared to challenge conventional wisdoms, internally and externally, and put an aspirational stake in the ground gives the organization focus.
  • Having the CEO as champion and lead, not just sponsor, the growth agenda engages everyone and can bring about fundamental change in the business and its performance.
  • Succession planning is important and promoting from within provides continuity and a leadership who understands the culture and shares the values of the organization.

Clarity of Ambition

  • Growth aspirations need to both inspire and be specific enough to create focus – ideally they engage the rational and the emotional side in a coherent mix.
  • Ambition needs to be reflected in the day-to-day business activities and made tangible though clear targets and believable principles.

Shared Values

  • Aligned leadership, ambition, and values driven from the top are key to inspiring exceptional performance from within the organization and forming deep relationships with external stakeholders.
  • Clear ambitions that fit with the organizational values enable all employees to believe that they are doing something worthwhile.

Organizational Confidence

  • Companies need to have an acute understanding of their distinctive competences and areas of weakness and then build an organization that amplifies those competences and addresses the weaknesses.
  • A clear ambition grounded in proven capability and genuine aspiration builds the confidence that an organization is making the right decisions and moving forward with its eyes open.

Innovation in the DNA

  • Successful growth comes from relentless focus on innovation across the board. From core products and services to internal processes and new business models, multifaceted innovation is critical.
  • Innovation should be anchored in the company’s ambition, so it has both context and is a sustainable part of the corporate fabric.
  • Talking about innovation is easy but you must support what you say with what you can see in the organization – the structures and systems that support and reward innovation are balanced with creativity and autonomy – and this translates into what you do and how you do things.
  • Neither R&D investment nor media messaging can be taken as the sole indicators of how innovative a company is. Growth does not come from a single activity but rather from a flexible combination of many factors.

Foresight and Insight

  • Growth Champions have demonstrated the ability to understand the insights and implications for their industry and business and turn that into actions that result in innovation and exceptional growth.
  • Companies that understand the forces and trends shaping their markets and the implications combined with the insights from today are better positioned to lead in emerging opportunities. In an increasingly turbulent world this capability will become more valuable and will often distinguish winners from losers.
  • This capability must be an integral part of a company’s strategic planning: foresight and insight alone do not deliver growth – they have to inform and drive action.

Return of the Conglomerate

  • Diversified and somewhat integrated conglomerates can work and be highly competitive against more focused peers.
  • No single conglomerate model guarantees success but the chosen model should be aligned with the organizational culture, capabilities, and leadership’s ambition.
  • Conglomerates enable in-house knowledge transfer and capability building across different sectors.

10 characteristics of growth champions

From this project, it is clear that not only is growth still a universally attractive ambition, but that its manifestation is highly varied. From the insights it is evident that any company wishing to successfully grow needs to pay attention to a number of core points. Although there is no master to-do list for growth, from all the analysis and discussions, we can see the unmistakable ingredients that support success, not only in the companies profiled, but also in others that were part of the wider analysis that informed this project. We see ten core implications for the future of successful and sustained growth.

1.     Clear Ambition

Growth Champions know what and where is the prize. They know whether there is a ‘gap in the market and a market in the gap’ and also have a clear view on how to create a new market that will be a sustained growth platform. The leaders in their fields know what will differentiate a company from tomorrow’s competition just as much as today’s and in making full use of this have a clear, succinct and individual ambition that employees, customers and wider stakeholder all understand.

2.     Distinctive Competence

While many organizations have identified capabilities and competences that enable them to operate and deliver products and services to their customers, few seem to have distinctive competences. Although the associated thinking has been around for many years, surprisingly few firms are yet to be clear about their real and defendable USP, what advantage it gives you and for how long. The Growth Champions by contrast do know and even those that don’t yet possess a truly future-proof distinctive competence, recognize what it should be and how they can most effectively build and develop it.

3.     Innovation Priority

Successful companies not only innovate better than their peers, but they also have clear priority. They know where to most effectively innovate to put clear blue water between themselves and the competition. They use multiple innovation across product, service and business model to create a complete innovation ecosystem, and they recognize what will be the future priority and why.

4.     Unique Insight

While many organizations have access to ever better insights, many are buying them off the shelf using the same suppliers as their peers. The Growth Champions really know what is it that is needed next ahead of their peers. They have experience and informed gut feel, but they also have evidence from bespoke research. The organizations that win by placing informed bets do so because they have unique insight.

5.     Organizational Confidence

All the companies profiled have self-belief in what they are doing and why. They are all confident that they can deliver their respective ambitions. Partly this is based on a track record of exceptional delivery and both understanding and nurturing their distinctive competencies. However, it is also very much seeding in a conviction that they are sure that they are doing the right thing and that you can do it well – and better than anyone else.

6.     Risk Appetite

The interplay between success and failure is a well-debated issue. While some companies favor processes to reduce failure, others permit creativity and experimentation. However, the Growth Champions all have a proportionate appetite for risk: Some will gives things a go, even before they are 100% defined, and are confident that they can learn quickly from mistakes and manage the upside. Others keep everything internal and obsessively experiment within the tent so that what gets delivered is as close to perfect as they can make it. However both extremes are comfortable with risk and see it as an essential ingredient.

7.     Innovation Balance

Linked to but distinct from the above, the successful growth companies of the past few years have the right balance between systematic innovation and creativity. Within their organizations, the culture and structure is in place to enable both to co-exist and work together. Whether as part of a planned portfolio of activities or as a core element for every growth platform, they balance the level of innovation as much as the type. Incremental and disruptive products, services and business models are emerging simultaneously from within single organizations as part of a coherent strategy.

8.     Disruptive Innovation

Conventional thinking has it that disruption usually happens when small companies want to take on big ones and introduce change into a market. What is clear from many of the companies profiled is that disruption is no longer the sole property of startups – the growth champions clearly show that disruptive innovation can be nurtured and thrive within large corporations to deliver transformational growth. Some have done it, some are doing it and others are getting ready to do it. But for all, disruptive innovation is no longer something just done to them but can also be a source of major growth as well.

9.     Aligned Investment

After years of analysis, it is clear to the majority that innovation pays dividends but requires support. Whether solely focused to organic growth or including the targeted acquisition of new capabilities, the investments being made on delivering the future growth platforms is evidently aligned with the growth strategy. Access to lower cost capital than peers is critical for many and, whether from internal or external sources, is increasingly being well used. The high return on innovation achieved by the Growth Champions relies equally on innovation impact as it does on well-focused investment where it matters most.

10.  Acting at Speed

Lastly, we come to speed. Across virtually all of the examples, being fast to market – either as a leader or a follower has been a critical commonality. Whether exploiting new technologies and business models ahead of peers, or doing a better job soon after their first move, Growth champions operate at a speed that eclipses the competition. These companies have accelerated cycle times and in many cases halved their industry’s established clock speed. They deliver the core incremental changes better and faster than the competition while also creating the next big thing that disrupts the market.

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