Blasting Past Plateaus

Approximately 95 percent of all businesses are “micro businesses” attracting less than $1 Mil/year in gross revenue and employing less than a handful of people, and, of course, the same can be said about chambers of commerce. Perhaps you have wondered what the top 5 percent know that might help your chamber grow.

Frankly, many owners of micro-sized businesses have no intention of growing their companies and really are not entrepreneurs at all. That can be true for chamber executives as well. Some owners of micro-sized companies have a problem with authority and simply refuse to work for anyone ever again. Perhaps some members of ACCE are like that. Some owners of micro businesses value a flexible schedule and have created what they call “lifestyle” businesses. It is inevitable that the growth of some chambers is being stifled by the limited availability of their executives. Some owners of micro sized businesses enjoy DOING and not LEADING, so they create what I call “incorporated careers” for themselves. In private practice, the architect gets to design buildings, the writer gets to write, and the public relations professional gets to create special events and work with the media. If you are a chamber executive who enjoys making speeches, running meetings, raising money, tinkering with events, you might want to ask yourself if you are inadvertently stifling the growth of your association because a chamber is inevitably limited by the career ambitions of its top leader. How far can an organization go if he/she does not want to learn how to become a President and later transform into a CEO?

Is your chamber the business association within your geographic area that continues to grow while others stay flat or decline during recessions?

The growth of most chambers of commerce tends to mirror the ups and downs in the economy and chambers often experience the same thing. However, perhaps you have also noticed that a subgroup of ACCE members is consistently able to sustain growth despite recessions.

They probably know what truly growth oriented business owners know–that the difference between a “boom” economy and a “recession” is measured in a few percentage points. There are still trillions of dollars of business available during even the tightest economy. The most successful business owners know that true wealth is often generated during recessions. While the majority of business owners slow down their efforts during recessions and even whine that “no one is buying,” growth-oriented business owners actually pick up their efforts and go after the business that is being left on the table by whiney competitors.

You have probably noticed that there is always one business association within a geographic area that continues to grow during recessions while others stay flat or decline. Why couldn’t that association be your chamber?

By the time you and your staff complete a project designed to improve yesterday’s technology, you will only be further behind.

Like most business owners, chamber executives express frustration with bottomless to-do lists. So, take a look at your to-do list.

I have observed that my most successful rapidly growing clients invest more of their mental time in creating their future than in perfecting the past. Think about how many times you have lost a ton of time and money analyzing and improving existing procedures and systems. My clients teach all of us that by the time you and your staff complete a project designed to improve yesterday’s technology, you will only be further behind. Does your to do list include too many projects that are focused on improving something from the past instead of creating something for the future?

There are some basic differences in how growth oriented leaders approach planning that could also benefit chambers of commerce. For example, many owners of truly growth-oriented organizations utilize “dynamic goal setting.”  Think about how you establish yearly goals. If it sounds something like “This year we will grow 5 percent,” ask yourself what was the logic behind that number. Would you even know if this is actually the year your organization should shoot for something like 17 percent growth?

Add it up. Could the strategy you have in mind for attracting new members from larger companies result in 2 percent growth? Would the approach you have planned to attract new small business members result in 3 percent growth? Will the steps you have recently instituted to improve member retention result in 4 percent growth? Could the new programs and discounts achieve another 2 percent growth? Will the dues increase you have planned contribute another 3 percent to the top line? Could the approaches you have in mind to attract members to more events each year result in another 1 percent? Could your new corporate sponsorship committee attract 2 percent growth in increased energy, money, membership and media attention?

There are also lessons to be learned from rapidly growing companies about employee recruitment and retention. I have found that the most successful growth-oriented leaders surround themselves with winners. They take the chance and hire people who are bright, ambitious and have experience that is relevant to where the organization is headed.

I have noticed that many chamber executives typically hire assistants who are safe and won’t push too hard. It can be quite a challenge for a business owner or chamber executive to respond to the tough questions of a hungry recruiter or an assertive communications manager. The most successful chamber executives I know have found a way to sustain an atmosphere that encourages continuous learning rather than stifle it. Rising to that challenge pays off in employee and member attraction and retention.

The point about being surrounded by winners isn’t just about employees. It may sound cliché, but your mother was right when she told you that it really does matter who your friends are. Truly growth oriented business leaders seek mentors and establish advisory committees composed of people they respect and admire.

You might want to ask yourself if you are attracting the most creative, successful business leaders as sponsors and officers for your chamber. If not, find out why not. Have you been around so many small-minded, conservative thinkers that you now sound like them? If so, it is time for wholesale change in the composition of your board and perhaps a renewing vacation for you.

If you are not attracting the most creative, successful business leaders as sponsors and officers for your chamber, find out why.

Ask yourself if the hottest businesses in your area are clamoring to showcase their state of the art technology, services, and products by putting it to use in your chamber, or are conservative attitudes turning your chamber into just another high maintenance customer for those companies?

My favorite growth-oriented business owners recognize that they must lead transformational change and make judgment-style decisions based on a vision of what can and will be.

No doubt you have heard or read that the primary job of leaders of any organization is to orchestrate change, but are you clear about the three major types of change? If not, you may be confusing the people around you if/when you can’t articulate which type of change is involved at any moment. Employees and volunteers need to know when they should “go with the flow” vs. when they should adhere to a rigid schedule.

Are your committee chairs skilled at managing developmental change? Are your department heads managing transitions with ease? Are you and your executive committee focused on transformational change?

To explain, some change is developmental like when a toddler is learning to walk and a good parent cheers the attempts, doesn’t overreact when the toddler falls, and creates a safe environment. As a chamber executive, you are managing developmental change when you are interacting with existing committees that have competent leaders.

Other change is transitional which requires the leader to focus on deadlines and defined steps. When a person graduates from high school, the process of applying for and selecting a college is a transition. Job hunting efforts linked to graduation from college are also transitional change. You are leading transitional change when you are dealing with the relocation of the headquarters, upgrading existing computers, or modifying the approach to your chamber’s annual EXPO.

Still other change is transformational. Often in transformational change, no one will have done what is being created, so copying the steps used by someone else simply isn’t possible. In transformational change, decisions are made using judgment calls based on a vision of something that does not currently exist.

For most people, becoming a parent for the first time is transforming. That person is just never the same again once he/she really feels the weight of the responsibility for another person’s life. Even though other people have been parents, no one has ever been this specific person as a parent. He/she must make a series of judgment calls based on his/her vision of what constitutes a good parent. To further clarify the distinction…having the second child is usually a transition, and the third child involves developmental change.

Think about the delegation of change management. Are your committee chairs skilled at managing developmental change? Have they established a safe environment that encourages members to take chances and learn? Are your department heads managing transitions with ease? Can they convey steps, hit deadlines, and make other people look good in the process? Are you and your executive committee focused on the vision of where your chamber is headed? Are you conveying excitement about doing things that have not been attempted before? Do you take the time to keep your mind open and your attitude positive so that nay-sayers are quickly diffused and optimists are empowered?

By this point, you realize that I have concluded that the human element is the primary factor behind business and/or association growth. It’s intriguing to me that the overwhelming majority of companies within industries with endless market potential, available financing, highly profitable products, etc. stop growing at 25 employees. It’s like there are WALLS or PLATEAUS at 5-7 employees and again at 25 employees.

If your chamber has “plateaued” at 25 employees, pause and consider what your organization would be like at 40 people.

The plateau at 25 people is usually related to the leader becoming too comfortable, risk adverse, complacent. Left unaddressed, the organization drops to about 18 employees when ambitious people recognize that their careers will be stifled if they remain with the organization. If the leader still fails to recognize his/her role in holding the organization back, incremental replacement of key employees will not resolve the problem.

If your chamber has “plateaued” at 25 employees, pause to consider what your organization would be like at 40 people, and shift your focus to creating that organization rather than trying to improve the existing 25 person organization. Important questions about goals, roles, and the definition of success are surfaced in that process that help the leader see beyond him/herself.

Truly growth-oriented business owners and chamber executives simply don’t accept premises that limit them. They are willing to try new growth strategies. Just because the growth of your association has always been “organic” doesn’t mean that future growth cannot come through acquisitions. Just because your chamber has never been known for advocacy doesn’t mean that it can’t expand its products/services. Just because your organization has been defined by a very restricted area doesn’t mean that geographic expansion isn’t possible. Why not consider saying “YES” to the big project idea this time and spread the risk through joint ventures or strategic alliances?

Which aggressive growth strategies have you seen local companies use that may just work for your chamber?

In summary, you can spark the growth of your chamber of commerce by taking nine actions that are more commonly practiced by award winning entrepreneurs:

  1. Adopt the mindset of a CEO so you don’t inadvertently stifle the growth of your chamber
  2. Let others whine during recessions while you remain aggressive
  3. Invest more time creating the future than in perfecting the past
  4. Utilize dynamic, rather than arbitrary, goal setting methods
  5. Surround yourself with winners (employees, volunteers, vendors)
  6. Delegate the management of developmental change to staff and members, and transitional change to your managers and board members
  7. Focus your attention, and your executive committee, on transformational change
  8. Shift to creating an organization that is substantially larger, rather than improve your existing organization, if/when it has clearly “plateaued” at 5-7 or 25 employees.
  9. Implement the aggressive growth strategies you have seen successful businesses use
(Originally published for for CHAMBER EXECUTIVE magazine.)

Known as The Growth Strategist®, Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP helps companies reach their goal of Achieving Accelerated Growth With Sustained Profitability®. Her clients seek a minimum of 50% growth/year, with the majority achieving between 100-200%. Her clients include 16 of the major telecommunication corporations including Nortel, AT&T, and SBC, international service firms like H&R Block, and award winning distributorships like CLS and Granite City Electric Supply. She has executed an ESOP, grown multiple international businesses, won just about every major award an entrepreneur can win, provided expert testimony on economic growth at over 30 legislative hearings, conferred with four different Presidents in the Oval Office, and published two books and over 100 articles.  Aldonna Ambler can be reached at 1-888-ALDONNA (253-6662) or at

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