The Paradox of How to Succeed


The Paradox of How to Succeed

Early in my career, I was fortunate to have a boss who was trained in the legendary GE management program. I’ll never forget a joke that he once shared with me about how to succeed in business.

There’s a three-step process to succeeding in business:

Step 1) Make a plan
Step 2) Throw away the plan and go do a bunch of stuff
Step 3) Compare what you actually did to what you said you’d do and make a new plan

To be clear, I’m not saying that plans are useless—neither was my former boss. Rather, the point of the joke is that in a calm, quiet room, removed from the real world, plans often make sense on paper. But in the real world, where suppliers are late, clients are demanding and employees are running in different directions, success may be predicated on opportunistic activities that have nothing to do with our plans.

Just look at the common term “business venture”. The first term conjures images of financial preformas and activity plans; the second conjures images of risk and unpredictability.

The truth is that succeeding in business requires a unique blend of art and science.

With this in mind, we offer eight paradoxical rules to succeed in business. Each one contradicts the last, but that doesn’t make them any less true or valid.

  1. Create a written plan
  2. Don’t be wed to your plan
  3. Get advice from others
  4. Follow your own gut
  5. Measure everything
  6. Look past the numbers
  7. Delegate to others
  8. Never lose control

Create a written plan: Having a written record of what you hope to accomplish is valuable for a number of reasons; the process of developing a written plan forces an individual to think through the details and challenge the logic of one’s efforts. By that same token, it provides the opportunity to share ideas in black and white with colleagues and build a shared consensus around what a businesses’ goals are and how best to achieve them.

Don’t be wed to your plan: The thing to remember is that plans are really just well-developed guidelines. I once had a client who developed a plan that identified three strategic initiatives for a calendar year. The CEO led his team to a consensus that these three initiatives were the ones that would best enable the company’s growth. A few weeks later, a strategic partner came knocking on the CEOs door offering a new distribution channel for sales. This distribution channel would have been the fourth strategic initiative, but it was deprioritized because the management team thought it would be too time consuming. When opportunity came knocking, though, you can bet that our client seized the opportunity—even though it was not part of the written plan.

Get advice from others: Another hallmark of successful leaders (and the firms they manage) is the willingness to seek out—and the openness to accept—advice from others. This doesn’t mean that one need take input from random strangers; but there is value in seeking open and honest input from trusted friends, advisors, colleagues and the like.

Follow your own gut: Successful leaders are those who seek advice from others, but do not allow that advice to supersede their own gut feelings. This doesn’t mean that failing to follow the advice of others is tantamount to ignoring them. It simply means that external advice is weight against internal views and often supplement with qualitative and quantitative data before making a final decision. Incidentally, this gets us to our next two set of contradictory rules.

Measure everything: We once worked with a client that lacked sales performance data on more than half of its marketing efforts. This particular client was spending significant amounts of money on marketing and was unable to measure the performance and ROI of dollars spent. Successful businesses are those that measure everything. My old boss who cut his teeth in the GE management program once told me that “if it can’t be measured, it’s not worth doing.”

Look past the numbers: Seasoned business leaders are those who can look past the numbers to see a bigger picture. This doesn’t mean that quantitative metrics are being ignored; to the contrary, sometimes the numbers simply don’t tell the whole picture, and frankly, there are times when it’s simply not possibly to adequately measure every variable. Numbers are often black and white; most businesses operate in infinite shades of gray.

Delegate to others: Think of the largest business you can imagine. Maybe it’s Exxon or Wal-Mart. Perhaps it’s Amazon, Apple or Google. Every single one of these businesses started with a few people who shared a dream. While each of these companies now employ tens of thousands of individuals, there was a time when the number of employees for each of these companies could be counted on one hand. The early founders and CEOs of these mega-companies realized early on that in order to grow, they needed to hire people they could trust and delegate authority and responsibility to them. Think about it; we all know the story of Amazon and Google, but imagine the number of nameless startups that failed because their founders and early management teams couldn’t figure out how to delegate, scale and grow.

Never lose control: Delegation doesn’t mean that a founder or CEO needs to lose control; to the contrary, it often means just the opposite. Many smaller businesses fail to grow because they fail to scale properly. This is often because many organizations – even reasonably sized ones—are people-centric, rather than process-centric. This means that the growth of the business relies on an individual or a small team of individuals, rather than on a process into which people may be placed. Think of H&R Block; every year, that firm is able to hire, train and retain thousands of people who perform a task most people find too complex—tax preparation. How as H&R Block able to do this? That business delegates authority to the people it hires, but relies on a training and performance appraisal process in order to manage the quality and consistency of the services it delivers.

In closing, we’ll leave you with this bit of advice: take our eight rules to heart, but feel free to ignore them and come up with your own. That’s the paradox of how to succeed.

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