Six questions every leader must ask to grow

April 25, 2014, 4:00 PM UTC
Scott Cook’s wooden table, where he started Intuit, sits front and center at HQ to inspire employees to follow his Brand Ideal.

This is Part 6 of a six-part series for by Jim Stengel,  former global CMO of Procter & Gamble and author of Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies. In today’s Guest Post, Jim summarizes the best practices of top ideal-based companies to outgrow their competition.

FORTUNE — I was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, earlier this month at a retreat with a $100 billion-plus global company, helping its leadership team chart the future of retailing. No small task. As it turned out, six questions emerged as critical for this company’s future growth:

• What is our higher ideal, our raison d’être?

• Are we living up to our founding ideal?

• Is how we work–our culture–coherent with our ideal?

• Is our communication with customers, and ourselves, emanating from this ideal?

• How can our ideal elevate our customers’ buying and ownership experience?

• What should change in our measurements to reward ideal-inspired behavior?

I’ve come to realize that these six questions are universally relevant. They’re at the core of any growth strategy, and they should inform the agenda of any leader of any business, large or small, business-to-business or business-to-consumer.

Over the past year, Professor Chris Allen of the University of Cincinnati and I have traveled 40,000 miles to visit companies that outperform their competition by tying their growth strategy to a solid Brand Ideal. In this six-part Fortune series, we’ve written about lessons we’ve learned—at Method, the green cleaning products company that is building its first factory based on its Brand Ideal; at Motorola Solutions , as it guides employee behavior through a framework based on the company’s purpose of “helping people be their best in the moments that matter”; at Discovery Communications , which innovates fearlessly, inspired by its ideal of satisfying curiosity. Unilever , car-buying service and Louisville Slugger, the iconic baseball bat manufacturer, also outperform, aided by the Brand Ideal stories that their management teams spread tirelessly to employees and customers.

These growth companies have answered the six questions—and make sure that new employees and customers know those answers. Meanwhile, three other growth companies that we haven’t written about in this series also embrace the six questions. And they’re worth noting here.

We visited Hiroshi Mikitani, co-founder and CEO of Rakuten , one of the world’s largest e-commerce platforms. Over sushi in one of his favorite restaurants in Tokyo, Mikitani spoke for hours about how he personally tries to live the principles behind the six questions, especially in communicating to employees Rakuten’s Brand Ideal: to empower its merchants to achieve their dreams. Mikitani begins each week at Rakuten (which means “optimism” in Japanese) with a “face-face” meeting in Tokyo, in English. In 17 years, he has rarely missed a meeting. “Even if I am far away in Europe or America,” says Mikitani, “I make sure I come back to Japan for my Tuesday morning meetings every week. I think it is very important for them to hear the ideal from me and not forget to empower our merchants to achieve their dreams.”

Across the East China Sea in Qingdau, we visited Zhang Ruimin, the CEO of Haier , a home appliance manufacturer with sales of nearly $30 billion. Ruimin, whom Fortune recently named one of its 50 World’s Greatest Leaders, spoke sincerely about the founding Brand Ideal of Haier: to be a beacon for global Chinese businesses by meeting world-class quality standards. But he was most passionate about building the company’s culture and forwarding the Brand Ideal–by eliminating hierarchy and creating work systems to bring employees closer to customers. “It is important to keep twirling the pyramid all the time,” Ruimin said over tea in his office, “because it is more important that employees listen to the market and not the boss.”

One of our favorite visits was to Intuit in Mountain View, California. Intuit brand marketing executive Diane Ueberle walked us through the company’s innovation center, stopping to show us an early 20th century kitchen table–clearly out of place amidst the modern vibe of the tech center. The wooden table, where founder Scott Cook had started Intuit, was hauled out of his basement and placed front and center at Intuit to keep alive his fundamental ideal of improving customers’ financial lives. “We gave Scott’s kitchen table a central placement in our innovation center to inspire all of us to deliver on our promise to ‘simplify the business of life,’” Ueberle said.

One of the most frequently asked questions from graduate students at UCLA Anderson, where I teach, and from consulting clients is how to get started with an ideals-based approach to growing a business. My recommendation: Put these six questions on a large Post-It note, gather your team, and begin a discussion. It always leads to good places. Try it.


For seven years until 2008, Jim Stengel was the chief global marketing officer at Procter & Gamble , where he oversaw an $8 billion advertising budget and 7,000 employees. Now heading a consulting firm/think tank aptly called The Jim Stengel Company, he advises companies on how to grow globally by driving ideals. He’s the author of Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, which uses a 10-year study involving 50,000 brands to show how at the best companies, financial performance relates to an ability to connect with fundamental human emotions, values and greater purposes. Stengel, 58, is also an adjunct professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and on the board of directors of AOL . He’s writing this series for with Chris Allen, the Arthur Beerman Professor of Marketing at the University of Cincinnati.