Growth Leaders and Personas

I came across an article in the Sloan Management Review from July 2008 entitled “In Search of Growth Leaders” by Sean D. Carr, Jeanne M. Liedtka, Robert Rosen, and Robert E. Wiltbank. The authors discuss key qualitities of growth leaders, or managers that produce above-average organic growth figures.

There are several factors that signal a so-called growth leader, such as the type of experience they have and how they manage risk. The thing that caught my eye was that growth leaders also tend to see customers as people rather than as data. The authors explain–

Success was based more often on thoughtful exploration of customers’ needs than on dry market data. The managers in our study personally sought detailed knowledge about individual customers, instead of just seeing them as data in market-research reports.

One manager told us he was not “customer-centric,” he was “Cynthia-centric.” Cynthia, he explained, was a single mother who had ordered his company’s personalized candies to be delivered for her son’s birthday party. Sadly, the product arrived a day late, and afterward, Cynthia, who had barely been able to afford the gift, called him in tears to express her disappointment. She became his constant reminder of what it means to be a day late in his business.

Direct knowledge about customers also helped the managers see what was most important to the customers in terms of products and services. One manager with a home-electronics retailer went directly to the sales floor to find ways to serve small-business customers better. He talked to the customers himself, asking them about their businesses. When he met real-estate agents, for example, he learned how much time they spent in their cars. So, even though they had come to the store to buy, say, a personal computer, he steered them toward other products that could improve their efficiency on the road, such as a GPS navigational device or a cellphone-speaker system.

This frequent in-store dialogue taught him and other salespeople to see previously unidentified sales opportunities. Their experience, in turn, led to a companywide initiative to teach employees to acquire customer insights through interactions in stores.

That sounds very similar to field studies, personas, and the like to me.

Overall, it seems that the rhetoric in the business community is starting to mirror what folks in the user experience community have been saying for a long time. Building empathy for customers, for instance, is something that Adapative Path talks at length about in Subject To Change. (See my review of that book in a previous post).

And of course being reminded of Cynthia’s needs in the above quoted passage is the job of personas. I just wish people in the business community would start using the same terms and say things like ‘personas’ if that’s what they mean. I also wish they’d start calling on UX people more directly to help solve their business problems.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


  1. Jonathan

    “I just wish people in the business community would start using the same terms and say things like ‘personas’ if that’s what they mean.”

    The trouble is that they mean “customers who are likely to make us the most money” not “people for whom certain designs will lead to a better experience.” There is a very significant difference.

  2. James Kalbach


    The article actually does quite strongly suggest that they are attempting to view customers as humans and not as gregarious hordes of consumers. I think that’s a key point in what the article is identifying as a growth leader: they consider the human side of things and (gasp) attempt to build empathy for customers. In the article, they really are describing a design persona. So my point was that they should call it that.

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