Success as a Choice: Working Smarter During Tough Times

“The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”

Vince Lombardi

Having worked with numerous successful business leaders, I’ve become aware of several commonalities among them. While it’s true that they come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and employ an array of styles that can appear very different from one another, they also share a number of propensities that account for their effectiveness. One of these is that as a collective, they illustrate very clearly that success is a choice.

What really ”jumps out” at me when working with leaders who consistently produce great business results is their intentionality. They are exceedingly conscious and deliberate regarding what it will take to make their businesses excel. Needless to say, they work hard, but what separates them from their less successful competitors is that they have developed a number of capacities that enable them to work smart as well as hard. Note that we’re not talking rocket science here— the key components appear to be a good dose of what used to be called “common sense,” coupled with a very strong desire for success.  The problem is that common sense is not as common as it used to be.

Not greed

In referring to a desire for success, I don’t mean greed. Greed is a desire for money per se, by whatever means it takes to acquire it. Unfortunately, all too many individuals confuse the two. Greed has a blinding effect that leads to behavior that brings immediate payoffs, but then often leads to disaster in the long run. We’ve seen this repeatedly, in the personages of people such as Bernie Madoff, the boys who ran Enron, and scores of other examples of the unbridled pursuit of big money.

Excellence as the basis for real success

Contrast the above disasters to the long track records generated by people such as Warren Buffett, Max De Pree, or the Marriott family.  By focusing on excellence, those that desire to be successful can produce wealth for themselves, do good things for society, and leave a positive legacy all at the same time.  The simple truth is, those with strong desires for genuine success behave very differently from those focused on the almighty dollar alone.

Four interrelated elements of excellence

What are the hallmarks that characterize businessmen & women that characterize excellence? Alternatively phrased, what should individuals who desire to succeed grow within themselves? Research on persons who exemplify long-term success suggests that those who wish to join them need to develop themselves in the following four areas:  Self awareness, goal setting, time management, and interpersonal skills.

Element #1:  Self awareness

One hallmark of a successful business person is a high level of self awareness, a good sense for what his or her strengths and weaknesses are. Note that it is not necessarily eliminating all of your weaknesses— that will never be possible in any complete sense.  But knowing what they are can be of tremendous value in choosing your directions in life and business.

In What’s Your Genius?, author and assessment expert Jay Niblick presents evidence from research on highly successful persons that shows that they display (1) high levels of self awareness,  and (2) high degrees of authenticity (an honest acceptance of their competencies and limitations). These two are more predictive of success than other specific combinations of traits or abilities. 

This is understandable— people who know their strengths and weaknesses and are honest about them are better equipped to manage themselves and their affairs than those are not. Anyone who is familiar with Hans Christian Anderson’s classic short story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” should recognize the implications of these findings.

Maximizing self awareness

Those who genuinely desire to excel in their leadership positions have lots of options for improving themselves in this area. My firm, Redwood Enterprises, partners with a company called Innermetrix that specializes in assessments that provide useful feedback that helps business leaders to increase their levels of self awareness— those that employ these in a constructive fashion invariably improve their performance.  Interestingly enough, it is those who are already performing well that are most likely to employ such tools. 

Another means of maximizing self awareness is keeping a personal journal of one’s daily activities and reflections upon them. Virtually all highly successful individuals do so, and find it an extremely beneficial, if not essential daily activity. By the way, it’s also very inexpensive. 

Finally, enlisting one or more “accountability partners”— trusted others who will give honest feedback regarding your thinking and conduct is also a common practice among individuals who desire to perform at their best. This of course only works if those you choose are not fearful of offending you if their feedback is not always flattering.

Element #2:  Goal setting:  Knowing where you’re going

Steve Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, emphasizes that if you intend to succeed in a given activity, it’s important that you “begin with the end in mind.” This means having well defined goals related to each important enterprise that we embark on. Many people and businesses fail because they tend to “fly by the seat of their pants” rather than developing clear strategies for what they intend to accomplish.

By the way, don’t be fooled by the “in mind” part— goal based strategies need to be very carefully worked out, and written, including at the very least the following:

• Specificity: Goals that are tangible and measurable, so that progress toward their attainment can be assessed.

• Action plans:  Specific steps that need to be taken to accomplish goals, and by when.

• Likely obstacles: In a world in which Murphy’s Law is as reliable as the law of gravity, be diligent about anticipating what might go wrong and planning for obstacles and unexpected distractions.

•Accountability: Clarity in regard to who is responsible for each step involved in the execution of the strategy, as well as any rewards or consequences associated with the extent to which each step is completed.

All of the above are important. Neglecting any one of them is leaving success to chance rather than taking control of your situation.

Element #3: Time management

Managing time effectively is one of the most daunting problems currently facing professionals desiring to maximize their personal effectiveness. Surveys conducted by chambers of commerce and other organizations serving the needs of business owners consistently show that time management is an area in which many feel they could use some help in the form of workshops and seminars.

We’ve created a world of complexity that challenges the limits of our ability to get things done, and it is exacting a toll on a lot of professionals. People spend more time sitting traffic than ever before, it is more difficult to keep up with emails and voicemails, and the information “explosion” is leading many to experience overload, confusion, and “burnout.”  In the meantime, there are still only 24 hours in a day.

Time management is an essential skill to master in such an age, and this becomes easier to do if you are already somewhat accomplished in the area of goal setting. This is true because if you are already effectively using goals as a means of ordering your activities, part of the work is already done.  Time management can be accomplished by carefully prioritizing your goals, which is not difficult if the goals are specific (and realistic) in the first place.

Once you prioritize your goals, you then have something of a mental map for ordering your daily and weekly activities in a coherent fashion. This gives you a head start on the time management problem.

Expecting obstacles and intrusions

As in the section on “goal planning” above, being conscious and intentional regarding how you’ll respond to unanticipated events is crucial to successful time management.  Remember, “Murphy’s Law” can always be counted to toss wrenches into the best laid plans, however well they are thought out.

Element #4:  Interpersonal skills

It is often said that “business is about relationships”— no question about it. Anyone who desires to succeed that would deemphasize this component won’t get far in their quest. Being seen as trustworthy and credible is essential, as is the ability to be persuasive. Whether the role sought is management, leadership, or sales, these are foundational. Technical expertise will always be essential in business, but in order to successfully run an organization, you must be astute in regard to people.

Success as a choice:  A living example

I recently met with a CEO who was hired explicitly for the purpose of salvaging a manufacturing company that was bordering on bankruptcy. He accomplished his assigned task, but he admitted outright that he went in with little direct knowledge regarding the product that his company markets, which happens to be precision steel fittings for use in industrial settings. 

This struck me as peculiar, but he explained that he was not hired for his technical expertise.  The company had all of that it needed, but was beset with a chronic problem of conflict and mistrust between labor and management.  It also lacked a coordinated plan for organizing its resources.  He was brought in on the basis of his past successes in building relationships and fostering a sense of common mission.

A closer examination of his approach to bringing this company back from the brink of oblivion reveals that his approach to accomplishing his task was a good example of the principles discussed above: (1) Self awareness: He had taken careful stock of his interests and abilities relative to what needed to be accomplished, and had accurately concluded that there was a good fit; (2) The active use of goals:  He instituted the use of a goal based strategic planning process that was carefully designed and diligently executed; (3) Time management:  He instituted the use of quality measures that reduced production time and minimized the waste of time and other resources; and (4) Interpersonal skills:  He brought labor and management together in an atmosphere of mutual cooperation and trust to identify common interests.  In the process, he got to know workers at all levels and is highly respected among them.  His ways with people are just as crucial to the well being of the company as are its material assets.

“If it’s to be, it’s up to me”

The story is a little more complicated than the details I’ve provided, but it’s a great illustration that success is a choice. By the way, this article started with a comment about the importance of being very conscious and intentional in the process of striving for success.  This executive also exemplified these two propensities in a comment about his attitude regarding his responsibilities. In summarizing his approach to leadership, he quoted an old Irish proverb:  “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”