Greg McKeown is a leadership and business consultant, public speaker, and author. His most recent book is, “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” In that book, he puts forward his very unusual belief that success in business can be its own worst enemy. In his view, success doesn’t necessarily beget more success. In fact, an initial success can actually prevent that success from advancing to the next level and from achieving its full potential. To find out why, please continue reading below.
“I found success becomes a catalyst for failure because it leads to what Jim Collins called the ‘undisciplined pursuit of more.’ “ ~ Greg McKeown
In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read McKeown’s book . . . only a few excerpts from it. So in the remainder of this posting is a little bit of McKeown, but it’s mostly my reactions to his thesis that one success may hinder further success.
Central to McKeown’s thesis is the notion that an initial success comes from an intense, unwavering focus on a specific goal, and that our success can be threatened if we lose sight of the singular focus that brought us success in the first place. There are probably a number of situations that would support McKeown’s thesis. Here are several of them:
- The “Shiny New Thing Syndrome.” When you think about it, entrepreneurs can be a little like crows . . . we can get distracted by every shiny new thing that comes along. And when we enjoy a level of success that generates some recognition within our marketplace, opportunities (read shiny new things) will start to seek us out. There will be ideas for new products or services which may or may not have anything to do with our existing products or services. There will be those who want to buy our company as well as those who want to sell us theirs. So while these opportunities may be legitimate and attractive, they nonetheless diffuse our attention and distract us from the very thing that brought us success.
- Proof of Concept. For many entrepreneurs, the thrill is in the chase, proving to the world that their idea has merit and can be a commercial success. But having achieved that, the entrepreneur may be bored with (or inept at) the mundane management activities that the business needs to sustain itself. So off he goes to his next BIG IDEA, leaving his staff to figure out what to do with the old BIG IDEA. As a result, no BIG IDEA reaches its potential because the boss loses his focus and moves on too quickly.
- Visions of Grandeur. Sometimes an entrepreneur wants what he wants because he wants it. There is the case of a friend and colleague who started a very successful business here in Chicago, and subsequently opened offices in New York and Los Angeles. Opening the offices on the coasts seemed a little odd since the Chicago market is so vast, he could probably spend several lifetimes here and never scratch the surface of it. But he wanted to be a “national” company and felt that a presence in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York would give him that. There was no illusion that this would make his company more efficient, or serve his market better, or be more profitable. In fact, opening the two additional offices probably made him less efficient and less profitable than he would have been with only the Chicago office. But maximizing efficiency and profitability was not his vision . . . claiming to be a “national” company was.
- Growth for the Sake of Growth. . . . is a fool’s errand, often driven by an owner’s ego. There are all sorts of sound business reasons to grow a company, but “just because” is not one of them. There seems to be a mindset among many small business owners that “we gotta grow this thing” without much thought as to why, or how, or what the benefit of being big would be. As a wise man once said (although we don’t know who this wise guy was), “Bigger isn’t better. Better is better.” Just look around and you’ll see all kinds of examples of large companies struggling while their smaller competitors are thriving.
There’s a story about the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company staring out a window at his sprawling corporate campus and watching some of his employees cutting the grass, tending the gardens, and trimming the trees. He asked one of his staff, “What do we know about landscaping? Wouldn’t we be better off contracting with someone who’s actually in that business? I’ll bet a qualified landscaping company could do that work better, faster, and cheaper than we can.” That started him on a quest to look into every activity within the company, searching for activities that were outside of his company’s core competencies. His guiding principle was, “If an activity isn’t essential to the design, production, and marketing of our products, we should outsource it to a contractor who can do it better/faster/cheaper than we can.”
On a larger scale, we see conglomerates with fingers into just about everything and gobbling up even more. Then, one day, a new CEO comes aboard, takes a look at the company’s vast holdings, and says, “I don’t think we know what we’re doing with half of our subsidiaries, so we’re going to do some housecleaning. We’re going to assess where our strengths are, where we can add value, and where we have the best opportunities for success. In short, we’re going to define our sweet spot and get rid of everything that doesn’t meet that definition.”
So the real message here is to protect your intense, singular, unwavering focus on a specific goal. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by everything that comes your way. Does that mean we should ignore or be blind to opportunities that do coming knocking on our door? No, of course not. But you should give such opportunities a quick and honest assessment before you waste a lot of time on them. Ask yourself:
- Is this opportunity a good fit for our core strengths and for the markets we serve?
- Is this such a wonderful opportunity that we must take advantage of it, even if it means slowing or idling work on our previous goal?