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Mistakes Made in Growing Your Business, Part 1

Thursday, March 28, 2019

I am reminded of the story of the young EVP promoted to replace the retiring president and founder, who felt relatively ill-equipped to take on that challenge. So, she set up an appointment to get his sage advice. She asked him what it would take to be successful, to which the founder said simply the key to your success is “right decisions.” The young woman replied, “But how can I be sure I am making the right decisions?”

“Experience will ensure you make the right decisions,” said the founder.

“But, how do I get the right experience?” she replied.

The elderly man looked the young woman in the eye, smiled, and said, “By making the wrong decisions.”

Most lessons are learned from the mistakes we experience by making wrong decisions, rather than the successes we achieve, although recovering from those mistakes can often lead to those successes. In my own 40-plus-year career founding and leading several talent development businesses, as well as my work with and knowledge of scores of others in the supplier industry, there seem to be a number of common mistakes. Professionals who learn from these go on to great success. Those who don’t, and continue to incorporate dysfunctional practices into their businesses, rarely move forward and grow.


One could argue focusing on critical success factors might be the more appreciative inquiry approach than surfacing all the mistakes made. Strength-based advocates would certainly adhere to this philosophy. But, often growth is painful just because of the repetitive mistakes we don’t seem able to eradicate. I wrote a whole book on how to successfully build and grow a talent development firm, but shamefully devoted only a few pages to the potential barriers and derailers that might get in the way of growth. My bad! Surely, avoiding these will lead to success, but how you avoid them is by eliminating the mistakes that cause them in the first place.

Given space constraints, I’ve divided my dirty dozen of the more salient mistakes I’ve observed in firms into two sets in this and next month’s blog. Here are the first half-dozen:


1. Working “in” the business rather than “on” it.

At some point, you need to get out of your own weeds and let others take over. Do what you like most and do best. For the average entrepreneur, this typically means not getting too involved with the details, but rather thinking more long-term by creating a vision, emphasizing your purpose, and establishing a strategic plan that will serve both of these.

2. Planning for today, not tomorrow.

As noted above, working on the business means looking forward. It is quite difficult thinking about the future of your business if you are forced to continually focus on the day-to-day activities. Letting go gives you permission to think strategically about what the future holds for both you—personally and professionally—and the firm.

3. Failing to professionalize the business.

It amazes me to witness a firm’s intention to grow while still relying on antiquated back-office systems. Usually, this is a shortsighted financial decision that ultimately stifles growth. Whether this involves financial systems, project management processes, inventory control management, or human resource policies, there are best professional practices that should be incorporated into the flow and dynamics of the business. Failure to incorporate these processes and systems not only spreads havoc internally by ensuring inefficiencies, but more often than not is also reflected in interactions with customers, who find dealing with you at best clumsy and at worst burdensome.

4. Getting distracted from the focus of the business.

We hear it more often than we like in reference to the business founder or leader: There they go again, losing focus on what the business is intended to do. This may include misalignment with your vision, straying from your strategic plan, or just chasing those bright shiny objects as the panacea for all the ills caused by former shiny-object journeys. Of all the mistakes I see firms making, getting off focus rather than sticking to their knitting is paramount. This doesn’t mean experimentation is taboo; but there is a time and place for everything, including when it is and isn’t time to focus on what the business really is, who it serves, and where it is going.

5. Trying to be all things to all people.

A corollary to mistake 4 above is the tendency to present you and your business as the be-all and end-all for all things talent development. That is, rather than carving out a niche and being one of the best at it, you dabble here and there without ever building your brand identification of what you are really best at doing relative to your competitive landscape. Given how very competitive the industry already is, it is extremely important to differentiate yourself from the crowd by standing out in one, or at the most two, areas of expertise and experience. The end goal is for your prospects or customers to immediately think about you as one of the top three potential suppliers to address their business challenge. You can’t possibly achieve this stature by trying to be all things to all people.

6. Diversifying inappropriately.

Of course, there is a time and place for trying something else, even when things are working well. But diversifying either products or markets must be well-thought-through decisions. Is it time, for example, to add to your product mix, move into another vertical industry, or expand into other geographical markets? At some point, true growth will require these types of decisions. Not thinking these through can lead to quick disaster and unraveling of your business plans. Many firms, for example, expand internationally or add distribution channels to their sales mix without understanding the intricacies and complexities of doing so. As a result, they execute poorly, often wasting precious time, energy, and money.

As you have read through the above six common mistakes, which ones do you think you are making? Which do you think you are on the precipice of making? How can you remedy these quickly and efficiently? What other mistakes in growing your business might also be taking place?

For more insight, check out my book The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm. Or join my session at the ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition. We will explore how to create a specific action plan for moving forward in building and growing your business.

About the Author

Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His latest book is The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

He can be reached at: 952-942-7291 or or at his website:

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