When I was a young boy I would spend time and energy climbing trees in my back yard. I recall my awe and amazement at the structure, strength and character of each tree. How deeply rooted they were and the enormous power they possessed. As my confidence grew I found myself climbing higher and higher. The higher I climbed the more vulnerable I felt, yet the view became more amazing. There was a spiritual and emotional component to each climb that lent much to reflection. I could spend meaningful quality time sitting high in a tree feeling safe, comfortable and reflective.
I find trees to be a strong metaphor for business. Trees, like businesses, are unique to themselves. Both rely on support infrastructures to prosper. Both invoke feelings of strength and admiration There is a well-worn adage; no tree grows endlessly to the sky. Alas, businesses, too, face conditions that slow or prohibit unlimited growth.
Strong Root System
Trees require a strong root foundation. Weakened or unestablished root systems will prove vulnerable to a tree during harsh weather conditions. Too, businesses will find it difficult to sustain adverse economic conditions with a poor foundation. If we nurture and care for our foundation, we are more apt to discover new growth and value. It is not at all uncommon for root systems to go in all directions as they seek water (revenue stream for companies). Deep, established roots, too, reflect our commitment to mission and a strong value set. It is during difficult times that alignment with our values is put to an ardent test. A well-worn phrase, “success hides a lot of sins,” comes to the forefront as we strive to be transparent, consistent and true to our values.
The Forest Offers Protection
Under harsh conditions, with heavy winds and damaging storms, the forest becomes a fortress unto itself, protecting the weaker individual trees. Having healthy competition amongst firms, too, spreads the downside risk of collapse during catastrophic times. Imagine having only one standing insurance carrier, health, auto or home, through epidemics, floods and unmanageable fires. Standing tall and firm among other individual companies increases our confidence in the future. While not guaranteeing it, we sense a protective safeguard around us.
Branch Structure and Hierarchy
Trees have a bountiful lower branch system and those limbs are quite resilient. They provide balance to the entire structure. Businesses are built upon a resilient workforce. As one stands back and observes a tree’s branch formation, you can imagine business divisions and departments taking shape, with many forks and job paths being presented; a hierarchical formation, rising to the pinnacle that is the CEO.
Acorns and Spinoffs
Many businesses provide needed internal investments, seeding, for new growth and innovation. There are times when these new businesses, acorns, if you will, grow mightily on their own. I think back to the time when Circuit City incubated what eventually became CarMax, its own strong and freestanding entity.
Modality, Cyclicality and Seasons
Many businesses have seasons and cycles of recurring activity. Some align with the calendar year while others share unique annual cycles. For trees, the spring season produces new bud growth and fresh foliage. At the start of a new fiscal year, businesses are poised with new budgets for anticipated profits and new challenges. Perhaps they are positioned to release new products or services to the market. In the fall, a tree’s leaves explode in a cavalcade of vibrant colors, in a way a celebration of its profits for that year for all stakeholders to witness and enjoy.
Pruning and Shaping, Caring and Feeding
Trees will drop branches, leaves and will, at times, require professional pruning and shaping. Businesses often reorganize, taking on a new shape. They will downsize, prune and reshape their workforce, often utilizing professional services, to better enable continued healthy growth.
Competition & Startups
Trees must compete with other trees for sunlight. Those that acquire more of the sunlight and other nutritional elements grow stronger, faster and gain a competitive advantage. As young saplings, new companies are inherently vulnerable. Seedlings are exposed to wildlife, foot-traffic, and stress from the environment. Those companies that focus and survive the struggles often associated with early stage investments, and which benefit from favorable conditions, are rewarded; they take root, they prosper.
Decay, Rot and Death
Even with the best of intentions, care and attention, businesses can and do fail. A bad economic storm with volatile and violent conditions can weaken even the strongest of firms. Some firms rot from the inside out. A lack of leadership, careless or unsteady attention to market conditions, misrepresentation or pilferage, and a disconnected workforce culture have toppled many businesses. Sometimes markets leave businesses, like changing environments sometimes disrupt the ecosystem for trees. Consider that 50% of the Fortune 500 have turned over since 2000 and that the corporate lifespan, once 75 years, is now 15.
Trees for Generations
Companies like Luck Stone Corporation and Estes Trucking are but two examples of growth built and sustained over generations and upon strong, deep roots. When nurtured, cared for, shaped for the future and adapted to changing environments, they are structures to behold and pay tribute to.
As you confidently climb your set of career trees and move from limb to limb, tree to tree, and forest to forest, consider the amount of time and effort that went into shaping your present tree. Ask yourself, “how strong and sturdy is my tree?”
Climb on, my friends! May you soar and enjoy your ascent.