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We’ve all hit a wall at some point. You may run up against a competitor you cannot beat. You might lose your job despite your best efforts. You could be doing everything you can – but still not getting that promotion. But whatever the cause, what feels like a roadblock could be your first step on a new growth journey – as long as that step is backwards.

When you can’t go forward, the only way to keep moving at all is to take a step back. As entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran shared on the TV show Shark Tank when talking about starting Corcoran Real Estate, the tony residential brokerage firm in Manhattan, “By anyone’s standard I was a success. But I knew I was going bankrupt. And you know what I did – I went out and took a full-time job while I worked my business. There is nothing wrong with stepping back before you go forward.” As we see from Corcoran’s experience, sideways or backwards sometimes turns into a slingshot.

We see this all the time in the corporate strategy world – companies that have hit a wall take a step back, reassess, and then move forward. Consider Tractor Supply, founded in 1938 to sell tractor parts to the six million farms in the United States. Growing steadily, the company went public in the 1950s. But by the late 1960s, due to more reliable tractors needing fewer replacement parts and the decline in farms from 6 million to 3 million, Tractor Supply was struggling. Over the next twelve years, Tractor Supply was acquired twice, and had five different presidents. After seeing a significant number of store closings and a revenue decline to $100 million, several key executives participated in a leveraged buyout in the early ’80s.

The new owners plowed into the data and discovered that, while the number of commercial farmers was decreasing, hobby farming was on the rise. This suggested a strategic pivot away from supplying tractor parts, and toward general farm and ranch supplies. Says former CEO Joe Scarlett, “One of our key goals was to become the pet supply store for people who own horses.” Today, Tractor Supply has grown to 1,400 stores, three times more than its next five competitors combined, with revenue north of $5 billion, and is a successful chain of stores for home improvement, agriculture, lawn, and garden care.

Of course, Tractor Supply is not alone – they were doing what so many startups do. According to Tufts’ University professor Amar Bhide, 70% of all successful new businesses end up with a strategy different than the one they originally pursued. The sequence of events for these companies is almost always the same: step back, reassess, and then pivot or jump to a new strategy.

So when you feel like you’ve gotten stuck in your own personal growth journey, take a page from their playbook. Ask yourself: why have I stopped growing? What does the data tell me? And what adjacent areas might let me grow again? Then take a deep breath – and a step back.

When we’ve gotten too close to a wall, it completely fills our line of sight, preventing us from getting an accurate view of our surroundings. It’s like the mobile game Close Up. First you see an extreme close-up of an object, but then the frame slowly pans out, revealing what the object really is. Until the camera pulls back, it is nearly impossible to identify what you’re looking at.

Many people struggle with stepping back because of the psychological ramifications. For some, stepping back is tantamount to admitting they’ve failed. Others may believe they are tougher than the wall and can simply smash their way through. Still others just want to ignore the reality of their situation, continuing to spin their wheels until they run out of gas. How many of us have said to a recruiter, “I can’t take a lower salary” or “Any move has to be a step up”?

This type of rigidity can be disastrous, while flexibility and a willingness to pivot can greatly enhance your chances for success.


Article originally published at Harvard Business Review

2017-08-18T13:19:39+00:00 September 29th, 2015|Categories: Harvard Business Review|
  • Jenn Elswick Chloupek

    Just what I needed to hear today. Whitney, this is a great article and we shouldn’t feel ashamed when we have to take a step backwards. At least we are still able to step at all. When life seems to not make sense or challenges and road blocks occur, in my life usually I see great momentum forward after the temporary pause. Thanks again for this gentle reminder.

    • whitneyjohnson

      Jenn — Thank you! And I am excited to post your blog with your story!

      • Jenn Elswick Chloupek

        Thank you Whitney for this awesome opportunity! You are my role model!