Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:
Achieving and celebrating success is an important – and hugely enjoyable – part of leading any organization.
Whether it's a quiet drink with a few colleagues to mark a successful product launch, or a black-tie gala award ceremony with prizes, accolades and speeches, there's no better feeling than knowing you've achieved something worth celebrating.
Success also has its dark side. Companies like RIM, Nokia, Zynga, Kodak and MySpace (and many, many others) were once at the very peak of their respective industries, only to fall from grace – and, in some cases, disappear completely.
The reasons why once-high-flying organizations (and this applies to not-for-profits and cause- and faith-based organizations just as much) crash and burn are, of course, many and varied.
But in my own career, first as a serial entrepreneur, then as an advisor to others, I've witnessed (and been personally guilty of) an ultimately destructive pattern that often sets in when an organization begins to achieve substantial success.
It's a pattern that rots the business from the inside, stalling its growth at best, and at worst, killing it completely.
Here are the painful lessons I've learned about how to avoid the curse of success:
1. Don't believe your own PR.
Successful organizations get feted. Media outlets take notice – first local, then regional and eventually, national. Stories get written, founders get interviewed. Plaudits start arriving. Myths and legends are hatched.
And somewhere around the third or fourth award ceremony (or press story, or request to come speak at this event or that), what started as a healthy, justified sense of pride begins to curdle into a seeping sense of rightness – a sense that, yes, we are all that and more.
That we do have some secret sauce, unknown to others. That – most dangerously – we can, and will, succeed at just about anything we put our minds to.
Just remember: Unless you are, literally, manufacturing sauce, you don't have a secret sauce – at least not one that will protect you and your business from failure. Don't let anyone else convince you otherwise.
2. Move the finish line.
Most of the time, as leaders we suffer from the fact that for most organizations there are comparatively few opportunities to spike the ball. Unlike sports, say, we don't win individual games, let alone tournaments or seasons – it's just one long, constant slog.
So when we do achieve (and celebrate) consistent success, it's tempting to believe that we've reached some sort of a finish line, even if it's only a temporary one.
My advice (painfully learned)?
Don't let up.
Celebrate, and the next day move the finish line forward – as far forward as you can. In business, there's no room for resting on laurels. (Note that this is not unadjacent to Jeff Bezos's 'Day 1' mentality, which he explains lucidly here.)
Along with your well-deserved success, you're going to get a lot of attention. Invitations will arrive to coach people, speak at events, write blog posts, give interviews. It sounds lovely, and frankly, it is.
Succumb to it, however, and you'll set your organization's growth back two or three years.
Be ruthless. Indulge a little – maybe a day a month – in such activities, but prioritize and turn most of them away. You have a business to run.
Oh, and if you're buying the argument that you doing all the extra-curricular stuff "is good for the business because of the associated PR"? Go back and read the first point above...
4. Find fresh eyes.
During down times, it's natural to turn to someone else for guidance and help – a mentor, a coach or a consultant, for example.
Here's my experience: it's even more important to do so when you're scaling the heights of sustained success.
You wouldn't try to climb Everest without a sherpa. Find someone to help you navigate the new success environment you've deservedly found yourself in.
You wouldn't try to climb Everest without a sherpa. Find someone to help you navigate the new success environment you've deservedly found yourself in. - Les McKeown
5. Put in the work.
This is painful to say, but it's unavoidably true – most organizations I've watched fall from grace after initial success have done so because of one simple fact: The primary leader stopped putting in the work.
There's something about not-yet-realized success that makes us work like crazy. Fear of failure (or even just fear of mediocrity) drives us to achieve.
For some leaders (not all), the arrival of success drains that fear, or numbs it somewhat. And that's okay – I'm all for draining fear – just make sure it doesn't result in you not putting in the work.
Congratulations on your well-deserved success – and may you follow it up with more.