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Senior Correspondent

Taking a Step Back Doesn’t Always Move You Forward

Taking a Step Back Doesn’t Always Move You Forward


Think about this. You are engaged in a lively discussion with a group of business colleagues. Maybe there’s a problem that needs immediate attention, or perhaps the group is contemplating the best way to pursue a new opportunity. In your mind, the discussion is invigorating, and far from a standstill or a stalemate. Suddenly, you hear these words of wisdom: “Let’s take a step back for a moment.”

A Step Back

The conversation and the progress comes to a halt. The room goes silent, at which point the advocate of the interlude goes on to describe the bigger picture, or the broader issue that everyone had seemingly forgotten.  

I’ve witnessed this scenario far too often. Early in my career, when I worked for a couple of big companies in brand management, I joined my colleagues in nodding to the notion of taking a step back. It was so easy to marvel at the intellect of those suggesting the “big picture” perspective. Yes, these pundits were bright and articulate, but they could also be very political. Many were already in leadership positions or on a fast track to a higher rung on the corporate ladder.

In those days, and in those companies, you never heard the word, “entrepreneurial.” That’s because entrepreneurs were considered to be seat-of-the-pants, fly-by-nighters. We, on the other hand considered ourselves polished professionals taking great pride in doing things right – conducting research, analyzing options, composing eloquent brand plans and business proposals.

How to Slay Goliath

When I moved on to a smaller, family-owned business, I discovered a better way. I was surrounded by entrepreneurial thinkers – innovative leaders who refused to take a step back – people who knew where they were going and how to get there. In that company, I learned how to slay Goliath. Small to mid-sized companies who are up against the giants, never win by emulating the giant’s culture. They must do things differently. That means nimbleness, laser-like focus, and market specialization. Successful big company challengers, the likes of In-N-Out Burger, Warby Parker Eye-wear, and Chobani Greek Yogurt aren’t taking a step back; they’re getting to the future first by taking leaps forward with smart insight.

The good news for every small to medium-sized company is the fact that the take a step back idiom continues to reside within the halls and boardrooms of mega corporations characterized by administrative and/or bureaucratic cultures. Administrative companies can be good at doing things right (operational management) but not so good at doing right things (strategic leadership).

Whenever there’s an opportunity to take a step back, you can bet they will do it, and in the process, stymie progress.

Distinguishing Between Two Cultures

So what differentiates an administrative from an entrepreneurial culture?

An Administrative Culture is one in which individuals are motivated to do things right and are cautious, slow-moving, and risk-averse. They value formal planning and processes, take comfort in routine, predicable situations, and make decisions based on research, data, negotiation.


An Entrepreneurial Culture is one in which individuals are motivated to do right things, and are aggressive, action-oriented, and risk accepting.  They value innovation and creativity, and are eager to lead strategic change.

That brings me to this question: How do companies with administrative cultures survive in today’s world of business? The answer is by out-spending their competitors and/or investing in acquisitions to increase market clout.

One of my former employers is the quintessential example of an administrative company that has grown almost exclusively from acquisitions and mergers. Here’s a snapshot of their path to growth:

1985 – Kraft buys General Foods

1990 – Kraft buys Jacobs Suchard

2000 – Kraft buys Nabisco

2007 – Kraft buys Danone Biscuits

2010 – Kraft buys Cadbury

2015 – Kraft merges with Heinz

Sure, if you have deep pockets and market clout like Kraft-Heinz, you can still take several steps back and still move forward. For smaller companies, however, taking a step back is just that… a step back.

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