Smashing the Glass Ceiling of Performance

By Joe Connelly

Companies are created and set up to grow. In some cases as fast as possible, while in other cases a plan is created for steady, sustainable growth. But every company and indeed all individuals hit points in their evolution where they simply stall out.

I have personally been part of companies that have shown meteoric growth, only to be followed by flat revenues. It then becomes a huge challenge to somehow generate performance above this new ‘maximum’ level. In business as in life it’s often referred to as hitting the glass ceiling. And if truth be told the majority of companies and individuals who hit their glass ceiling don’t break through it. But why?

Let’s concentrate on a company’s glass ceiling for now. This maximum level is often measured in absolute terms by the revenues of the company. There seems to be a level at which continued growth seems to be all but impossible. It seems that continuing the growth of the past is now not sustainable. Something (or a bunch of things) has obviously changed. But yet on closer inspection the employees and the company are probably doing the same things as before. So check out these seven clues as to possible reasons why your company has stalled.

1. What got us here won’t get us there: and something that all leaders must embrace. There are simply too many variables, all of which change to some degree or another that trying to ‘maintain’ status quo is simply madness. I liken it to having a child and not wanting the child ever to get older, to grow, to change.

The best companies have continuous improvement programs institutionalized in their DNA so they are always looking for ways to improve. I recall working for Motorola in the mid-1980s and they had a very clear non-status quo mandate – every organization had to increase their KPI’s (key performance indicators) by 15% every year. For example 15% lower manufacturing costs, 15% greater revenues, etc. I can tell you it was an exciting and dynamic place to work back then.

2. Competition continues to evolve, and not just the usual suspects: if you are in a market that has sizeable revenue potential, then your competition (just like you) are likely driving to increase their revenues. If you are lucky, the market will be growing at a rapid rate in which case all boats float under a high tide, meaning that being in the right market at the right time can be good enough to grow your revenues; but not forever. Your competition is always trying to get some of your hard-earned marketshare. It’s one of the basic laws of business competition after all. In addition new competitors often emerge, and in many cases with a new product, service or approach that has the ability to quickly gain marketshare and test your company’s approach to the core. When it comes to competition take a leaf from Intel’s past-CEO Andy Grove who famously stated, “Only the paranoid survive.”

3. Staff often reaches their level of incompetence: this might seem a bit of a tough comment, but reality shows that many Staff reaches a level that, without help, they cannot surpass. As a professional business coach, I see the amazing changes that individuals can show with just a modicum of help and support. Yet many companies refuse to invest in helping their key staff reach that next level. And strangely it’s when things stall and help is really needed, that this appears to be the time when no help is offered – strange really. Proper Executive coaching will generate positive and needed change in both individuals and companies if done in a timely manner.

4. Systems and processes that no longer excel: can often be the underlying cause to slow or stalled growth. I am sure you have at least a few over-burdened Excel spreadsheets running somewhere in your organization. Although I love Excel it was never designed as a forecasting tool, a CRM system or a way to manage real-time numerical inputs from different sources at the same time. Of course there are likely many more examples where a process that once worked flawlessly, is creaking. Identify the key ones that need upgrading, and make necessary changes to fix them, and while doing so, consider deploying software, systems or processes that have room for continued improvement over time. Don’t ever box yourself into a corner with non-scalable systems or processes.

5. Customers’ needs change slowly and rapidly: all you need to do is look at mobile phones as an example. The rapid growth of their functionality and how the public has embraced it is proof indeed that markets can change rapidly. The flip side of the coin is that some markets change slowly – for example coffee shops exploded rapidly over the last few years and have now stabilized, exhibiting a period of slower change. But for how long? Whatever phase of market growth, stability or retraction you find yourself in, ensure you align with your customers needs today, while also spending time into what they will need tomorrow. A company that does the former without the latter will surely struggle – in fact it’s only a matter of time. Which one are you?

6. Employees need challenge and stimulation: its simply part of being human after all. Its also clear that laziness and intransigence can creep in, however slowly, into an organization’s thinking, through continued belief that the current modus operandi is the best way and should not be changed (it’s likely generating good results after all). Companies continue to operate the best, and with the best results, when their employees are constantly and positively challenged, and in a way that is exciting rather than paralyzing. Keeping employees pressing for continuous improvement and change will always bring new ideas, freshness of approach, and a sustainable belief that they are empowered to keep doing what is needed for long-term success.

7. Fear of losing becomes more compelling than the thrill of winning: which simply put induces inaction and indecision. Its output means not committing to necessary change, trying to keep hold of what is today under all circumstances, and refusing to invest the monies, time and effort to secure a brighter future. Commitment to change is one of the basic rules of the game of business. Trying to ignore or circumvent this most basic principle, over the long haul, will always cause failure. I always suggest leaving a certain percentage of your budget to be applied to continuous growth in your people, processes and systems. That way you will stop looking in your rear-view mirror while driving forward.

Committing to continuous, positive change is hard. But its corresponding output is what keeps the best companies the best companies, and allows them to succeed against their competition over the long haul. Just like getting a new hair-do, or choosing a new genre of music to listen to, spice up your approach inside your company and commit to periodically and systematically re-invent. It’s this commitment and its corresponding output that will keep you excited, happy, challenged and successful – just like your company.

Joe Connelly is Founder & CEO of, a worldwide Executive and Sales Coaching and Consulting company, with offices in Canada and Switzerland.

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