The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted is the definition I like of the word success. It doesn’t matter if you set out to conquer Everest, gain that place at the top of the sales league or, merely, be pleased that you have raised a happy and harmonious family. Not all of us can be the next Steve Jobs, anyway. One of the ways that psychologists divide the human race is based on something they call the locus of control. Those who believe that it is the external world that controls them (leaving these people at the mercy of whatever the World throws at them) contrast with those who believe that we are each in control of our own destiny. Success is whatever it means to you and my personal belief is that it is controlled by what you do to make it happen, not by others and not by events. Belief in myself and what I could achieve by my own means played a strong role in achievement in the success that was important to me.
Extensive sales training taught me the skills to ascertain and understand customer’s needs and how to influence; extensive marketing training and experience taught me how to achieve these things on a macro scale. But of all the classic business skills, it was a deep understanding of the concepts of strategy and their application that helped me most throughout my career.
For just one example, 13 years ago my business partner and I bought a niche engineering business with a wide and very traditional customer base. Following detailed analysis of our capabilities, market needs and trends, we constructed our strategy. We invested heavily in new equipment, training and systems and focussed on being problem solvers to a small number of carefully chosen and technically demanding industries. It took a great deal of time (with the aid of a great team) but we gradually built a highly profitable new customer base providing solutions no-one else could supply and we even succeeded in building large sales to China. Traditional customers and competition gradually declined. Earlier this year, after 13 years, we sold to a great US corporation, with a kindred strategy, who are continuing to invest and doing well.
But what of all those personal qualities that business leaders and entrepreneurs are supposed to possess? How did I stack up against these? Well, the short answer is that I haven’t got a clue. I’ve never been interested in what makes other people successful and have only followed my own beliefs when it comes to leading others. I do know a lot about myself, though, having been on the receiving end of much psychometric assessment and subsequently gaining wide qualifications and experience in this area.
Two, seemingly contradictory characteristics have served me well. If I really want something or set out to achieve a goal, I just don’t give up (for example, it took me two years to find and buy the engineering business I referred to above, despite countless obstacles and setbacks). On the other hand, if my analysis of a situation informs me that further effort is counterproductive, I waste not an instant more on it. Illogical? Not to me. If what you set out to achieve is a goal logically and rationally arrived at and a good match to your competencies, despite being an extremely difficult challenge, why give up? Nevertheless, if new information comes to hand or circumstances change substantially, it is downright foolish to continue flogging the beast that has breathed its last.
Competition has always been a spur to me and many has been the time when I simply had to do more and better than those around me. But more important has been a desire for personal achievement, simply stretching myself to do what I believe I could be capable of.
Of all the techniques that a leader can use, one of the most vital is to obtain 360° feedback. Having experienced this vital information (at my own instigation) on several occasions, I learnt a great deal about how I was perceived as a leader. A truly additional, insightful experience was my participation in Looking Glass Inc (a complex management simulation exercise) during an intensive general management training programme in the USA. The experience started with each of us 30 or so participants being allocated a role in Looking Glass (I drew short straw as company president). Following a detailed briefing we were each given formidable in-tray that afternoon which we worked on late into the night. The next morning at 7.30 we went to our desks and ran the company, monitored throughout (even during our phone calls and by reference to every piece of paper upon which we even scribbled) by a team of observers. The following entire day was spent in an intensive de-briefing which covered every aspect of our performance including both the quality and quantity of the decisions we made. The most insightful aspect was the giving and receiving of face-to-face feedback from all of the 10 members of the team I had been allocated. Of the things I learnt from that incredibly realistic experience the most important was to learn that whilst I did and said the things the team expected of a leader, they all conveyed in different ways that they felt I was not being open enough with them.
Shortly, after I returned, I was made CEO of the UK operation. One of the first actions I took was to instigate a company wide climate survey and found that the number one issue was a distrust of management, with a widely held belief that employees were not being consulted or informed on key issues. Following discussion amongst my senior team, we agreed that I should speak to the entire company, share the results and ask for volunteers to join teams, to address each of the key issues (they had all recently been trained in problem solving techniques). On the day of the meeting I made the assembled employees a number of promises; I would not hear any of the findings or recommendations before they did and I would agree to any recommendation the teams made so long as the cost did not exceed our local country budget level, or contravene international corporate policy (if a recommendation did, I undertook to sell it to our company president.
I seemed to hold my breath for the next month, staying away from any of the employee meetings and not quiz any of my direct reports as to progress. We assembled in the staff canteen on the day the results were due and the atmosphere was, well, electric. Had I or my own team screwed up? Would the employees pressure for unrealistic changes? Would my team leaders have handled the process democratically? One by one each of the four teams presented their analysis and their recommendations. I need not have worried. The changes requested were surprisingly modest and reasonable and after asking further questions I was delighted to say “OK, go ahead and implement everything and you will all receive regular feedback on progress.” I learnt that together we could build a much more decentralised style of management that went on working, enabling us to make significant progress. It also taught me a lot about trust and it allowed me to empathise more with the feelings and views of the entire company.
There’s a lot more to come on this theme but this post is long enough! More soon.
Why not share your own thoughts on what drives success?