Lessons in Franchising Success from the Aspen


My speaking agent in the United States, Katrina Mitchell, took me for a drive through the Rocky Mountains in Denver. As we climbed the mountainside, we came across an amazing sight — an expanse of glistening, golden aspen trees. The effect of these beautiful trees shimmering in the breeze was spellbinding. Katrina explained that aspen forests are actually one living organism connected underground.

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On returning to Australia, I did some research on aspen forests and discovered that they are hardy and adaptable, with root systems that can be thousands years old. I also learned that the aspen tree is often used as a symbol for strength of community.

What a great analogy for a franchise network — a community of business people growing together and drawing strength from their interdependent connections.

Balancing individuality  with connectedness

Indeed, this combination of individuality and connectedness is one of the keys to success in franchising. However, getting the balance right is not easy. Too much individuality creates chaos and an inconsistent customer experience. It also deprives franchisees of the benefits that come from true collaboration. 

On the other hand, too much connectedness can cause franchise systems to become excessively internally focused. Franchisees can also become overly dependent on their franchisor. The common symptoms of this are not taking responsibility for one’s own growth and failing to take the initiative to promote the business locally. So, how do franchise systems achieve the right balance? I suggest there are two factors. The first relates to selection and induction and the second to franchisor leadership.

Franchisees need to fit in

The goal of a selection and induction process is to ensure that each franchisee is ready, willing and able to take responsibility for managing their own business. Sure, they will need to draw heavily on the support of their franchisor in the early stages, but they ultimately need to develop the confidence and skills to stand on their own.

Taking responsibility for one’s own business is different from being a loner. People who have a deep need to always call the shots, who have their own way or who habitually resist the rules of others will find it hard to operate in a franchise network. In other words, franchisees must be willing to fit in and occasionally compromise their own short-term interests for the longer-term good of the group.

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Franchisors need to  provide clear leadership

With regard to leadership, franchisors need to regularly define and clearly communicate what aspects of their franchise system are fixed or nonnegotiable and what aspects are flexible and open to local innovation. They also need to provide opportunities for ongoing learning and development to keep people green and growing.

Just like an aspen forest, great franchise systems enable franchisees to stand tall and grow on their own while they simultaneously remain connected and draw strength and protection from the group.

If we are open and observant, nature can teach us a lot about effective teamwork, which is critical for success in all areas of life, especially in a franchise network.