Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Sweat, Character and Hard Thinking Behind Success

by Steven M. Worth
President, Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.  Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…” as Shakespeare noted nearly four hundred years ago; and this has been a popular theme throughout the ages in both popular fiction as well as, in recent years, business management books.  In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points out the interesting statistics behind most outstanding success stories.  His thesis is so compelling that one might be tempted to conclude that “success” is an odds game—the result of being in the right place at the right time and putting in the right amount of prep time—much like the Peter Seller’s movie “Being There” or the Tom Hanks movie ‘Forrest Gump” in which the leading characters of both movies achieve astounding success in life due to well-placed values and being in the right place at the right time.  Cinderella-tales are comforting.  We see justice rendered in otherwise hopeless situations—the way we rejoice in the news of jackpot lottery winners, imagining that with luck this might one day be us….

We see less of this magic in our work as management consultants.  What we see more often is the truism that successful people and organizations are those who do what the less successful don’t do.  By this I mean they do market research, they develop strategic partnerships with outside groups and organizations, they take calculated risks and encourage innovative thinking, they retire programs and organizational structures that have outlived their usefulness, and they focus their resources with laser-like intensity on those programs and projects that are designed to meet current and future market needs.  We also see the hard work, the agony of failure along with the courage to get up and go at it again, and the humility in knowing that no one can do it all or know it all and that success comes in working in harness with others who share your vision.

What we sometimes fail to see behind the news coverage and trappings of success are what Winston Churchill in another time called the “blood, toil, sweat and tears” of success.  This is unfortunate, because so many are ready to throw in the towel at the first sign of an obstacle.  The late psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott Peck noted in his book The Road Less Travelled that the majority of his patients were people who felt they were failures, or who built their lives around avoiding failure without realizing how much easier it would be if they just recognized that difficulty and uncertainty are not signs of failure but rather normal and expected challenges on the path of success.   

Strategic planning consists in part of recognizing which aspects of your environment you control and which represent external trends over which you have no control but which can present opportunities or threats that you should take into account in your planning processes.  As can be seen in our firm’s recent management survey (to be discussed in our two leadership training sessions that we will be offering through CESSE this year), increasing numbers of managers are using strategic planning as a tool for planning their organization’s success—a tool that is only useful if it is fact-based and backed by a business plan that focuses resources and sets long term and short term measurable goals.  It works, but it does require work and risk and letting go of preconceived notions.  This is the furious peddling that goes on under the graceful swan’s seemingly effortless glide through the water.   


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