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8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008

Bruce McWilliams is thinking about the future right now.

He’s not ignoring what’s on his plate for today; it’s just that McWilliams constantly remembers advice given to him by a mentor.

“He would tell me a business is either growing or dying; there’s no such thing as steady state,” he says. “You always have to be thinking about growing your business, how it needs to change over time.”

If those are the only two options for a business, you can guess which one McWilliams, chairman and chief strategy officer of Tessera Technologies Inc., is striving for. So he is forever challenging the 400 employees of Tessera — which provides manufacturers with transformational technologies for next-generation electronics, optics and imaging solutions — to make a bigger splash in the marketplace. In turn, they have helped grow the company from 2003 revenue of $37.3 million to 2007 revenue of $195.7 million.

Smart Business spoke with McWilliams about how you can set growth goals for tomorrow while working on today’s business and why a customer who hates your new idea is a good thing.

Create a team specifically for growth. Four years ago, we set up a group that is focused on nothing but how do we grow into new businesses and think far out in time. And then, when we acquire those things, how do we protect them so they don’t get squashed by the organization, even though they will seem at the time to be in their infant stage.

You start by saying you have to grow at a certain rate, and you have to find a certain market to do that. I often had ideas of where to go, but when I would come to a particular executive in the organization, they would say to me, ‘Do you want me to work on the current quarter or year, or do you want me to go look at this new thing?’ And I’d always say, ‘Well, you’ve got to focus on the current quarter; if we don’t make that, we’ll get hammered.’

So how I overcame the problem is I set up a separate group that’s job is the vision, and I hired a guy who was very talented in marketing, I put my chief technical officer in there, an engineer who can run the numbers and two lawyers ... and I told them, ‘By 2010, we need an additional $100 million in revenue, come back with ideas,’ and we set up a strategic committee with the board.

You can’t just overnight create a big business, so this is a key strategic plan, and we have to isolate this group. And there are people working on nothing but this.

Explain your vision — for now and later. A leader needs to have a vision — both near-term and long-term — of where the organization is going and the value it delivers to its customers. So you need to be able to explain that to anybody almost in an elevator speech.

In terms of the near term, have two or three, or four at most, goals that you can say, ‘These are the things that we need to accomplish,’ and it needs to be at a level that everybody down to the receptionist can understand.

Have a compelling vision for why your company is going to grow and be an exciting contributor in the marketplace. (For Tessera,) it might be why people like pictures and video and why we’re going to see more and more of that, and that will be something people can understand.

Bounce ideas off the marketplace. To understand the marketplace, your people and the leader really need to get in touch with your customers and your customers’ customers. We sell to the people who buy the components that make the things like mobile phones, PCs and games. But for us to really understand the marketplace, we need to go to the level of HP and Apple and understand what type of products they want to get to the market and how what we do is working or doesn’t work.

One way is to come in with specific concepts and then ask them to critique it so you almost can’t lose. If they like it, they’re going to tell you why they like it. If they don’t like it, they’re going to tell you why they don’t like it, and that’s going to tell you where to go.

Divide the power; then check in. A leader has to really empower people. If they get a sense they’re going to be micro-managed, there’s no way really talented people are going to work like that.

The way our process works is those top-level things we do become the corporate (management by objectives). They are made more quantitative, and on each of those, you decide which of your executives contribute to making that happen. Then they become owners of that goal and expand on down to a bunch of things they need to accomplish to achieve that.

So, basically, if they are on track for hitting their goals, then they don’t see much of me. The other thing is having a weekly staff meeting where you listen to what the problems are, and the problems between groups, and take a stance on how we’re going to address that. Generally, if you truly listen to them, even if you don’t agree and do something else, they’re fine — they realize there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, they just need to make sure their input is heard.

HOW TO REACH: Tessera Technologies Inc., (408) 894-0700 or