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Written by The Mezzanine Group
on October 20, 2011

I’m no gardener, but there are some basic gardening rules that even I know. And they can be very applicable to business.

One of those rules is about trimming back flowering trees and shrubs, like roses. Every year, roses enjoy a dramatic growth spurt. Vines extend exponentially and the buds burst into colourful blooms. If they have good soil, get some sun and have a good caretaker, they enjoy a beautiful season.

The interesting trick with roses is that every year you have to trim them back. It seems a counterintuitive thing to do – to cut away all the lovely evidence of growth and render what was beautiful during the summer ugly in the fall – all in the name of enabling it to be beautiful again the next year. But what experienced gardeners know is that the root system grows and grows, and while the cutting back removes the evidence of growth above the surface, below the surface the plant gets stronger and stronger.

Companies are like that too, although the timing is less predictable and less frequent. Companies can have dramatic growth spurts and enjoy periods of tremendous blooming. But just like rose gardening, the caretakers of companies have to pare back from time to time, to enable the company to enjoy a future growth spurt.

I met an interesting CEO yesterday who heads up an aerospace company. They have various lines of business serving airlines, aircraft maintenance companies and defence departments globally. They are the classic Canadian company that I see in my daily life – technically brilliant, appreciated by their customers, innovative, cost saving, have a great opportunity ahead of them – and aren’t very good at marketing.

This CEO is clearly a gardener – at least in the business sense. He described the company’s situation: they have grown 20% this year and will grow 20% next year based on a single large contract. Things are good – the rose is in bloom, as it were. But this CEO is thinking about what has to happen to make sure the company can grow beyond the current blooms. Our conversation was about the root system – what can he do to make sure the root system is strong the year after the large contract ends. Our conversation was about marketing, but I bet he’s doing the same thing in thinking about leadership, IT and other ‘root systems’. He’s smart and experienced enough to know that he can use this year’s big contract to invest in the root system. He will have to pare back on the profits that he shows next year because he’s investing in the root system, but his blooms in the following years will make up for it.

That’s a good gardener – I hope we have the chance to work with him.

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