As a young marketing executive, I worked for a high-tech company run by founders with virtually no management experience. Still, they managed to bootstrap the startup from zero to $100 million in sales and an IPO. At that point, they brought in an experienced senior executive to take the company to the next level.
Smart move, right? Not exactly.
This guy was definitely smooth. He had just the right amount of gray hair, said all the right things, asked all the right questions. He looked and acted very presidential. And he was a spectacular flop. A year later, the board gave him the boot, but the company never recovered and eventually went right down the tubes.
Over the years since, I watched as that same CEO tried his hand at five or six startups, but the result was always the same. So what’s his problem? I don’t know about the other companies, but he ran our relatively lean firm the way big company executives did it back in the days before corporate America slimmed down.
In case you weren’t around in the ‘80s, corporate executives and business leaders were generally slow to adapt to changing market conditions and new technology. They met the challenge of new global competitors with a combination of disdain, disbelief, and denial.
Come to think of it, that’s exactly how Research In Motion’s leaders reacted when Apple and Google launched new platforms that would ultimately decimate BlackBerry’s market share. They responded with disdain, disbelief, and denial. That didn’t work out so well, now did it?
The problem is that leaders never seem to know when to stick with the old ways and when to try new ideas. Some leadership lessons and management methods are timeless, as long as they’re adapted and accurately applied to present conditions. By the same token, a lot of what passes for conventional leadership wisdom these days is nothing but popular fads and feel-good fluff.
While you might think that young up-and-coming entrepreneurs have an advantage over old-school executives trying to adapt to a brave new world, that’s just a myth. The breakneck pace and brutal competition of today’s global markets is tough on everyone.
The answer, of course, is to optimize the best ideas, old and new, for the present situation. That was the whole problem with my former CEO. He grew up in a big overgrown company that wasn’t particularly innovative, learned one way of doing things and tried to replicate that wherever he went. That worked out about as well as BlackBerry ignoring its new competition.
Now, I bet you I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that being stuck in your ways is the other guy’s problem. Not you. You’re open to learning, changing, adapting. Well, guess what? We all think that way. But most of us are just fooling ourselves. After all, it’s human nature to resist change and seek stability and wisdom in what we like to think of as tried and true methods of the past. We all do it.
So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you some timeless advice to keep in mind as you climb the corporate ladder, grow your enterprise, or do whatever it is you do to make your mark on this world. Hopefully, it will keep you from ending up like my former CEO and keep your company from ending up like BlackBerry.
Success breeds complacency. It’s often said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But in the real world, the reverse is also true. It’s just as crazy to do the same thing over and over and expect the same results. That only happens if nothing changes. And when it comes to competitive markets, everything changes. Everything.
Always challenge the status quo. Investors say that past performance is no guarantee of future results. It’s the same thing in business. Every company is different. Every market is different. Every organization is different. Everybody is different. Never succumb to the inertia of your own past experience. If you don’t consistently challenge the status quo – especially your own way of looking at things – your competitors will.
Winning is everything. Back in the day we used to measure success by how big our organizations were. Forget that. There’s only one way to measure success, and that’s by developing great products that beat the competition and delivering results to your stakeholders. Competitive markets are zero-sum games. There is but one buyer and one seller in every transaction. You can’t win unless your competitors all lose.
Frankly, I don’t know how my old CEO keeps it up. I mean, how many failures does it take to realize you’re incompetent? If it was me, I’d have taken a cold hard look in the mirror, realized I reached my level of incompetence, and tried my hand at something else long ago. I guess denial is a powerful force indeed.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.