This post represents my current thinking on the nebulous concept of ‘success’. A prerequisite to what follows, of course, is that an individual’s conception of success is aligned with that of the majority of the populace. That’s not always true (or desirable!)
I don’t think talent makes you successful.
Talent doesn’t make you successful because talent is just a word which sums up three different character traits. These can all be developed; they’re not ‘innate’.
People who are successful tend to be:
Confidence is a preference. I strongly believe that. Confidence isn’t something borne out of particular experiences; it’s a decision, a statement of intent, a way of approaching the world that can’t really be taught. It has to be grasped.
There’s a time to let things go. Of course there is. But that dogged determinism is why people gain PhD’s and top jobs. It’s all about commitment and, quite often, sacrifice.
This, of course, involves being able to present well. In fact, for some people, the ability to present other people’s ideas (without credit) leads to their success. But being to articulate your thinking, in words spoken and written is extremely important.
I tried recently to count the number of organisations of which I’ve been part over the years. I attempted to list everything from junior football teams through to my current employers. I began to lose count.
We’re part of many organisations in both our working and personal lives. I began to wonder how many of the organisations to which I’ve belonged would be considered successful. This then led me to consider what I meant by ‘success’…
What follows is a list of five characteristics I believe to be common to every successful organisation.
By ‘successful’ I mean demonstrably achieved what the organisation was set up to do. For a swimming club that’s teaching people to swim, being successful in galas, and training-up lifeguards. For schools it’s not only achieving good value-added but striking an achievable work-life balance for staff and preparing young people for the wider world.
Each of the following is additive: an organisation needs to get the first one sorted before moving onto the next. Skipping straight to 5 is a waste of time if 1-4 aren’t in place!
Every successful organisation needs a story. Often this is the mission statement based on the founders’ wishes. An independent school often has a strong story and a proud history which is often reflected both in the events calendar and positions within the staff and student body. A business that sells a product might have a story on how the company was founded or the ‘lightbulb moment’ – such as the Dyson story that’s printed on the side of all Dyson vacuum cleaner boxes.
The story not only lends the organisation legitimacy, but gives its members a common shared interest and direction in which to point. It sets the parameters, the tone. Sometimes the story is summed up in the organisation’s slogan, such as Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ and Nike’s ‘Just Do It’.
More than anything, the story tells the world why the organisation exists. And that’s an important thing to communicate, especially in these testing times.
2. Call to action
Every organisation needs a story, a mission, a raison d’être. But it also needs a call to action – a reason why people should care – or, perhaps more importantly, a reason why people should join in.
A church, for example, is unlikely to get new members by providing bland, inoffensive services that allow people to forget the main messages soon afterwards. Public bodies such as the National Health Service need to not only go through the motions to improve the nation’s health but capture the public’s imagination and give them a reason to change their habits.
The call to action is difficult, especially if it requires demonstrable change in lifestyle or belief system. And, of course, the most successful organisations are the ones that maximise (and capitalise) upon these changes.
3. Growth mindsets
It’s fully possible to have a successful organisation without charismatic leaders. But I’ve yet to come across a successful organisation without leaders who have growth mindsets. Carol Dweck’s work has revolutionised not only my approach to education and business, but interactions with my son:
According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence. Others, who believe their success is based on hard work and learning, are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence… Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life. (Wikipedia)
I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people with growth mindsets most of the time – at home, at work and online. However, I was recently in a position where I was surrounded by people with fixed mindsets. It was soul-destroying. 🙁
Seek out a growth mindset for yourself and foster it in others for your organisation to be successful and to flourish!
Once the story, call to action and charismatic leader are in place, commitment should be a fairly easy win for an organisation. Give staff a reason to work their socks off and give all they can to the organisation and the organisation will reap dividends.
The example often cited is Google. Having recently been to their London headquarters I saw some of what has been written in action. I saw happy, motivated staff working past 9pm on a weekday night, the legendary free food, micro-kitchens and off-the-wall accessories. I didn’t ‘see’ the 20% time that Google staff are given to work on their own projects, but it’s a well-known fact that many of their most innovative offerings were borne from this.
As a leader, I’d much rather have one person giving 100% than two people giving 50%. Not only because it’s cheaper, but it creates a palpable ‘buzz’ around the place. It energises other people. Create a culture of commitment and people not only thrive but flourish.
You can have the story sorted, a call to action prepared, the leaders with growth mindsets in place, and committed staff, but still fail to have a successful organisation. Why? Friction.
Friction occurs where there are bottlenecks, frustrations and indecisiveness. These almost always are the result of poor workflows. A workflow is merely a way of doing something. I can remember one school at which I work, a high-achieving specialist school. I remember being surprised at the number of flow charts in the staff room, up on the walls in classrooms and reproduced in the staff handbook. At first, this felt quite constraining. “Is this the only way we’re allowed to do things around here?”, I thought.
But then it dawned on me that effective workflows freed up people in that school to be creative, to focus on more important things, such as learning, their life outside school and adding value to the lives of young people. In other words, it allowed staff to achieve the mission of the school and be part of a successful organisation.
Workflows are crucial to the running of any organisation. At our most recent planning meeting, we mapped our current and future workflows. It was an interesting and enlightening experience. I can honestly say we’re becoming more efficient, more aware and, yes, more successful as a result.
The above constitutes my overview of what I believe organisations – both educational and otherwise – need to work on to become successful. I’d be very interested to hear whether you agree. What would you add? What would you remove? What would you change? 🙂
If minor celebrities and athletes can write their autobiographies whilst still in their 20s, then I feel justified in dispensing some wisdom. Here it is:
If you want to go far in life, don’t whinge.
Not whinging is your fastest and most direct route to success, in any area. People don’t like whingers. Note that I’m not saying don’t say anything negative, just be aware of the difference between that and whinging.
Whinging is when an individual says something negative without any interest or commitment to making what it is they’re whinging about better. Their utterances are worse than useless as they actually make everyone else around them feel worse. That’s why people avoid whingers.
But not whinging isn’t just about winning friends and influencing people, it’s about personal happiness. Not whinging makes you feel better about yourself. And if you make a commitment to make changes rather than moaning about them, then your confidence will increase. You are likely to also gain new skills and your personal productivity is likely to skyrocket. 😀
I’m reminded of a quotation from Michael Caine I read recently on Scott Berkun’s blog about how he learned to use difficult situations to his advantage:
I was rehearsing a play, and there was a scene that went on before me, then I had to come in the door. They rehearsed the scene, and one of the actors had thrown a chair at the other one. It landed right in front of the door where I came in. I opened the door and then rather lamely, I said to the producer who was sitting out in the stalls, “Well, look, I can’t get in. There’s a chair in my way.” He said, “Well, use the difficulty.” So I said “What do you mean, use the difficulty?” He said “Well, if it’s a drama, pick it up and smash it. If it’s a comedy, fall over it.” This was a line for me for life: Always use the difficulty.
So be like Michael Caine. If you see a difficulty, don’t whinge; do something about it! 🙂
Owen calls the middle management of an organization ‘the matrix’. It can be an uncomfortable and difficult place from which to emerge, he says. The five most common pitfalls of survival are:
The expert in the matrix
The cave dweller
The boy scout
The expert in the matrix
The expert in the matrix has been promoted because of their technical competency. On becoming a leader they are out of their comfort zone and therefore lean on their exceptional technical skills. They are likely to demand almost impossibly high standards from their subordinates leading to friction and discontent.
The cave dweller
Cave dwellers try to avoid the matrix as much as possible by hiding in their ‘cave’ of pseudo-certainty. In an attempt to recreate the security they felt lower down the organization they become more territorial and less valuable to the organization. These, says Owen, are likely to be the first to go in any organizational ‘rationalisation’.
Coming across as rather too enthusiastic about ‘learning the dark arts of the matrix,’ the politician works hard to cultivate a power network. They are constantly on the lookout for new initiatives and seek a position in relation to them. Politicians seek to be close enough to projects to be able to claim a stake in them if successful whilst being able to distance themselves from projects that fail or are discredited. After a while politicians are seen for their true colours and are ignored.
The boy scout
The opposite to the politician is the boy scout. They think that by working hard and delivering results they will automatically receive recognition and promotion. In practice, however, they got ‘lost in the matrix.’ Boy scouts need to stake their claim and show that they are leading and delivering.
Autocrats act as if they are already higher than they actually are in the organizational hierarchy. Whilst they talk about the importance of being a team player, in reality they are chiefly concerned with people being loyal to them. If they perform well, autocrats can succeed and are promoted. If not, they become irritating and a burden to their colleagues.
The path through the matrix
So how do middle managers be successful in and/or find their way out of the matrix? Owen believes this comes back to the ‘three and a half Ps’ that he outlines at the start of the book:
People – focus not only on those you have direct formal control but those ou can motivate and coach. These widens your circle of influence.
Professional – model the values needed as a senior leader. One of the best ways to do this, believes Owen, is to chair meetings well.
Positive – being positive is especially important in the middle of the matrix. Treat ambiguity and change as opportunity instead of risk. Learn how to deal with conflict in your particular context and you will be successful.
Performance (the half-P) – you need a ‘claim to fame’ to emerge from the matrix. Show that you can deliver exceptional results out of ambiguity and complexity. Actively take on challenge.
I really liked this section of Owen’s book In fact, the whole thing is becoming invaluable to me as I step up from being a an ‘expert in the matrix’ (and ‘boy scout’ at times) to, hopefully, becoming an effectively and successful senior leader! 😀