Prune the rosebush

Prune the Rosebush

I have a saying, “You have to prune the rosebush to create beautiful blooms.” I use this analogy to help clients figure out which products, services, and activities will be “core” to their long-term success.

Every rosebud competes for water and nutrients, so gardeners prune off all but the most promising branches and remove any sick flowers so that the best rosebuds get the resources they need to bloom.

I use the same analogy with companies. You have finite time, energy, and resources. Effective strategic leadership requires regular pruning of products, services, activities, and (yes) people that aren’t “core” to your long-term success.

Yes, it’s hard to say no to things or stop doing things. It’s hard to retire products and services that will be less relevant in the future. It’s hard to remove people whose skills are insufficient to drive the company’s future aspirations.

Why? Because we become emotionally attached. We are conditioned to want to fix and grow things. Let’s face it, how many resumes brag about the projects you pulled the plug on? Product lines you discontinued? Unprofitable customers you fired? Staff who were a good fit in the early days, but you let them go because you needed people who could operate at a higher level?

Your “stop doing” decisions are where you demonstrate mature strategic leadership. It is easy to keep adding new products, adding new services, and starting new projects. But it takes wisdom and courage to prune the rosebush.

Jack Welch was one of the best-known pruners during General Electric’s heyday. If a GE business could not be number one or number two in its market, he would sell it. Any business that was struggling would be fixed, closed, or sold. Every year, GE would fire the bottom 10 percent of the workforce.

Note: I’m not recommending you fire a certain percentage of people, but some level of staff turnover is healthy. If you don’t proactively address below-standard performance and remove B-Players, you end up carrying a lot of deadwood on your rosebush, which hinders growth.

I was recently recommended Dr. Henry Cloud’s book “Necessary Endings” and learned he too uses the rosebush analogy for business. He extols the wisdom of accepting that there are life cycles and seasons to everything. Endings are part of the natural order.

“At some moment, we have to determine whether or not our efforts to make a business succeed or to make a person improve are going to work. To do the same thing over and over again expecting different results is not only crazy, it is a recipe for staying stuck and not getting the rose you want.”

I’ve found Cloud’s book useful to identify emotional blocks to pruning. Here are a couple of cognitive traps that immediately resonated with me, probably because I had to learn them the hard way!

Quitting = failure?

We’ve all heard the simplistic slogan that winners never quit. But a wise leader acts more like a professional poker player. They know when to fold a particular hand, and when to double down and bet big. “Failing well” means “failing fast”. In essence, a wise leader quickly prunes off what has low odds of success, and invests their resources into something (or someone) more promising.

Feel responsible for others’ happiness?

A leader’s duty is to act in the best long-term interests of the company. Perhaps you need to change suppliers? Remove a long-serving employee? Shut down an entire team?

On a personal level, perhaps you need to end a relationship that has become toxic or one that is holding you back from achieving your goals? Perhaps you need to quit a startup that has failed to achieve escape velocity and is merely limping along? Perhaps your career ladder is leaning on the wrong wall?

Yes, it’s natural to feel empathy toward those who are impacted by your pruning decisions. Pruning can invoke strong feelings of rejection, loss, and sadness in both parties, at least in the short term. But you are not responsible for other people’s happiness.

Dr. Cloud claims that feeling responsible for other peoples’ emotions comes from being parented in a manner where children are made to feel guilty if they act in ways that make other family members unhappy.

He says, as adults, we need to adopt a new mental framework that says, “I am not doing this ‘to you.’ I am doing this ‘for me.’ ” (Or alternatively, “I am doing this for the good of the team”).

I’ll explore more of Cloud’s work in future blog posts, but for now, I’ll leave you with this thought to ponder:

Pruning is the process of proactive endings. Just like a rosebush, you cannot reach your full potential without a systematic process of pruning.

What do you need to prune from your life?

Until next time…
Stephen