Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Gravity of Success

I had the chance this weekend at a very busy industry trade event to reconnect with many friends across our business. It was a huge success for our enterprise, certainly a new “high water mark” in our journey of dynamic growth and profitable expansion. It was at a small dinner last Saturday night that I had the chance to slow down and enjoy a wonderful dinner with a number of friends, deep industry veterans, where an interesting conversation emerged around the idea of managing success.

One of my tablemates shared that he had recently been at a conference where the chess champion Gary Kasparov was the featured speaker. He shared that Kasparov talked about his early success, winning his first world grand championship at the age of 22. When asked whether that was his toughest challenge, he quickly replied no. It was after a number of consecutive World Grand Championships that Kasparov was faced by a huge challenge that he described as “the gravity of success.” It is the reality that continued success is not inevitable, but has to be “re-earned” in each successive match, practice event, or work session. What made him successful in a past match would not be the key to his success in future matches. He is quoted as saying “winning creates an illusion that everything is fine ….. that after a victory we want to celebrate, not analyze.”

These comments from a chess champion made me reflect back on my own experience, and on my situation today. I have had the chance across my career to experience many businesses and brands that at one point seemed impenetrable and were ultimately found vulnerable. Now almost ten years ago, I was at dinner with executives from Blockbuster on the day that Netflix was launched. At dinner that night in Dallas, they laughed at the idea that anyone would go through the hassle of ordering DVD’s through the mail rather than visiting one of their more than 5000 convenient Blockbuster stores. To put it simply now ten years later, Netflix is now a major factor in the on-line entertainment landscape and the last Blockbuster store near my home was converted into a Smoothie shop years ago. Blockbuster had seen many months, quarters, and years of success, but somehow the “gravity of success” was too strong to enable Blockbuster to find success today.

While there are many examples across the landscape, (i.e. Woolworth, Kodak, Howard Johnson, Web Van,, etc.), the conversation made me reflect on my immediate reality. Our business has had a great run, driving profitable growth quarter after quarter for a number of years now. We have built capabilities and competencies as we have grown, realizing that business processes and systems are required in order to support historic growth and enable future success. Now with all of that said, were we becoming complacent? Were we getting lost in our “illusion” that everything was fine? Was the “gravity of success” lurking around the corner?

While it is clear that no one is immune to the tug of that “gravity,” the dinner conversation prompted me to take action on an immediate moment of success. As I said we have just finished a very successful trade event for our company, clearly exceeding past experiences and even our high expectations. Regardless of that reality, the dinner conversation prompted me to call for a “debrief conference call” this week, so we could review the experience in detail and while we will celebrate the “wins,” we will work hard to uncover and identify the opportunity areas form the past week. Kasparov said, “question the status quo at all times, especially when things are going well.” It is with that advice that I am taking action this week; I am appreciative that an innocent and pleasant dinner conversation has led to my awareness of, and respect for, “the gravity of success!”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ode to my Dad: part 2

Ode to my Dad: part 2

It is widely written that grief is a process, unique to every person, often coming in waves of happy and sad memories brought on by poignant and insignificant triggers. That description of “process” and “waves” is most certainly my reality after losing my Dad, now a bit more than two weeks ago. For me, I have been drawn to pull out old photo albums and mementos, wanting to remember and embrace some of the “old stories” of my family from years gone by. As I was sorting through some old papers in my bedside nightstand, I came across a letter that my father sent me more than seven years ago for my 45th birthday. It was a short letter, written in his clear steady hand writing, from an earlier time in his fight with Parkinson’s disease. After wishing me a happy birthday, he added a few lines of “advice” that made me smile last week, amidst tears, thinking of his good natured encouragements:

“I am tempted to give you a list of “advice”, but would boil it down to this:
• Just continue to be yourself
• Be a leader by your example
• Honesty, sincerity, and your love of people are the route of your life
• Watch out for those “management fads”
• And finally, keep your sense of humor!”

While I am tempted to take each of his points and break them down into action oriented connections for all of us today (maybe fodder for a future essay), I am struck by the authentic nature of his good natured advice. He wanted only good things for me, and over his career as an electrical engineer primarily for ALCOA, he learned a number of important lessons of leadership that he wanted to pass along. I remember clearly how he talked about certain of his bosses/leaders that really knew the work and the team and how that authentic connection made them effective and admired. Equally he talked about other bosses/leaders from the opposite end of the spectrum, more focused on “managing up” or trying the latest management “technique” (see “management fads” above) than really working on the challenges at hand. One story he talked about was of a boss that had fully adopted the principles of the “60 second Manager,” a popular “management fad” of the 1970’s. It seemed impossible to my dad how someone would/could expect to handle a situation in less than a minute, when the technical problem at hand could not even be described accurately (analytically/mathematically) in less than sixty minutes!

As I continue to dig through old papers and photos, I am certain that I will come across more nuggets of insight and perspective. For me the process is not solely nostalgic as the above quote suggests, reminding me today of ways to be a more effective professional and leader. Take a few minutes yourself, either with the “advice” from my Dad, or from your fathers or mothers, or your friends, mentors, or bosses and look for their “advice” on how to be more effective. Not only will it do your heart a bit of good (as it is doing for me), but you just might find a pearl of wisdom to apply to your life today.

Post script: Over the past few weeks I have received calls, notes, texts, and letters from a wide variety of family and friends and I can’t overstate their impact. Each message has brought me comfort and support, and I am deeply grateful to everyone who has reached out, thank you all!