Dialing For Growth

The best way to find out how other outfits got to where you want to be: Call 'em up

By Jack and Suzy Welch

My 17-year-old business has grown into a solid, profitable operation. Where do people like me go for advice on moving to the next level of growth? Most books seem to focus on startups and large businesses. We're neither, but we have a great business model and a real fire to create something special. -- Jerry Giampaglia, Mahwah, N.J.

One answer to your question is as close as your phone, although what we are about to suggest may seem awkward, even outlandish. Pick up your phone, call companies where you see exciting management breakthroughs--and ask if you can watch them in action.

We bet the answer will be: "Sure, let's set it up."

Counterintuitive? Maybe, but we've seen that dynamic play out over and over in the past several years. Indeed, we've found that most people are bursting to talk about their successes with anyone who asks, regardless of the inquiring company's size, public profile, or market might. In other words, you don't have to be a big boss or the employee of a famous company to get doors to open. You just need to have the guts to ask for advice.

We're not suggesting, of course, that you contact competitors. But there is a whole world of other companies out there using management practices that could really improve your performance. Armies of companies, for instance, learned about lean manufacturing from Toyota (TM ), which proudly opened up its factories like living classrooms. Wal-Mart (WMT ) has likewise shown many visiting companies how to use information technology to fine-tune product availability and better meet customer needs.

But don't just think about calling the usual suspects for advice. Hundreds of companies, if not thousands, are using the Six Sigma quality program, some of them in interesting new ways. The same is true for many up-and-coming management concepts, such as the customer loyalty measurement called the "net promoter score." The point is: Teachers are everywhere; you just have to find them. And that's not hard. The media continuously highlight success stories, often putting the contact point right in front of you.

A red flag here, however. Visiting companies to watch them in action can be great, but the exercise is pointless unless your own people are ready to embrace outside ideas. If they're not, some adjustment to your culture is probably necessary. To do that, you've got to kill any not-invented-here syndrome floating around your organization and replace it with a new value of open-mindedness. You can jump-start that process by using praise, money, and promotions to celebrate employees who find outside ideas and bring them back home. Before you know it, you'll find yourself deluged with good ideas from every quarter.

Bringing the outside in can be daunting, especially in a successful company like yours, but don't let the challenge deter you. If you really want to get to the next level in growth, look everywhere for companies using ideas that can open your eyes, expand your mind, and change your ways. Then pick up the phone and call. Someone will answer.

Why is there an age, 60-65, when people are required to retire? -- Anonymous

There are as many answers to this question as there are people, since each retirement case has to do with the person, job, company, country, and so on. But for the sake of discussion, we'll assume your question pertains to retirement within the S&P 500 world of big corporations.

In which case there are two answers, because corporations generally have two categories of employees. First there are the specialists--individuals with unique, accumulated knowledge. Given the long and productive lives people enjoy today, it hardly makes business sense to bid farewell to these valuable employees at some arbitrary age. We say let them decide to work or not, as long as they keep contributing!

But we'd make the opposite case for the second category: leaders. Why? Because companies need vitality and change. Stay static, and they petrify. Often that's what happens when people in the top layers hang around for too long. Great people in their 30s and 40s don't want to wait 10 years for their shot. They want to invigorate companies with new ideas and shake things up now, and organizations should let them. With a change of leadership, fresh air pours in the windows, and new energy puts extra spark in the place.

That's why, generally speaking, managers in their 60s should take their good economics, well earned over decades, and move on to exciting, and different, new futures. They'll be giving their companies the same in return.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at thewelchway@BusinessWeek.com For their podcast discussion of this column, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.