Global growth
How to achieve global growth iStock

Baby, it's cold outside. Well, getting colder anyway. There is nervousness in the air. China, that great engine for global growth, is slowing down, with what consequences no one can be certain. Europe is stuck in a deflationary moment. Interest rates may finally be about to creep upwards in the US. Brazil is hit by scandal. Russia's energy-financed dreams are turning sour as oil prices remain low. Saudi Arabia has a big budget deficit. And as for geopolitical risk, well, take your pick. This is not an ideal time for businesses to generate growth.

And yet companies that want to avoid stagnating must continue to seek to grow. Investors and analysts demand it. Employees want to play for a winning team. So – in the words of a popular management book written over a decade ago – how do you grow when markets don't?

"There are essentially four ways of achieving growth," Niall FitzGerald, the former Unilever chief executive (and Reuters chairman) told me. "The first is when there is a rising tide which lifts everybody, the second is when you take market share from others, the third is when you disrupt or destroy competition, and the fourth is where you discover new areas to make money in."

It is a useful primer. Growth is on FitzGerald's mind as the company he now chairs, Brand Learning, a marketing consultancy, is about to publish a large study called Growth Drivers, a survey of 900 senior executives in 42 countries, backed up by interviews with 70 CEOs and business leaders. It is a substantial piece of research which aims to get beneath the surface of well-intentioned assertions about growth to find out what might actually deliver it in 2016 and beyond.

Some of the findings are not altogether surprising but serve as a healthy reminder. Companies are better placed to grow when they have a clear purpose, respondents said. Their leadership is "customer-centric" and connected to the daily realities of the business. And the business is focused on developing the capabilities of its people.

"In some ways it may sound like a statement of the bleedin' obvious," FitzGerald says, "but it's so obvious that somehow people miss it. ."

What do companies get wrong? There is fatigue out there with too many flimsy or doomed initiatives, too much empty rhetoric and too many business clichés. Few people want to be told, again, that their business is undergoing a "transformation". One respondent said that company leaderships sometimes offer missions that are "laminated but not lived". "People don't care what their leaders say, they look at what they actually do," FitzGerald says.

Growth companies manage trade-offs (or tensions) well: between the core of the business and new elements, between the need for data and the crucial role of instinct, between the need for agility and the desire to "scale", and so on. But above all growth companies have a clear or explicit purpose, something employees can sign up for and believe in. The goal of profitability alone is not enough of a spur to intelligent colleagues.

Do you know who your customers are?

Brand Learning's Hayley Spurling put it this way when introducing the data at a recent event: "Next time you start your strategy and plan processes, and you say 'this is the number we're going to hit', I would say start with, 'this is why we want to grow'; 'this is how we want to grow'. And then can you come up with something more exciting than perhaps the normal plans which are about 85% the same as last year, to help get there."

"People used to ask me why I spent so little time in Blackfriars [Unilever's global headquarters]," FitzGerald says. "I told them – nobody's buying anything here!" Leaders need to be – genuinely – close to their customers if they want their businesses to grow. They should let their best people take risks, move fast, and flourish. And companies need to go to where the customers are.