Oswald Letter

What it takes to be successful

The Secret to SuccessWhen people question what it takes to be successful in business, my response is often, “You should ask someone who is.” The best way to learn about anything is to ask someone who has been successful at it.

If you want to learn how to throw a great curve ball, ask someone who throws a wicked curve ball. If you want to know how to bake the perfect chocolate cake, talk to the best baker you can find. If fishing is your passion and you want to know how to land the big ones, ask someone whose walls are covered with fishing trophies. Likewise, in business if you want to know what it takes to be successful, ask people who know.

Here’s the thing. You’re going to get a different answer from just about everyone you talk to. Some people are going to talk about personal characteristics. You’ll hear about traits such as intelligence, perseverance, and dedication. Others are going to speak about general business principles like surrounding yourself with talented individuals, focusing on the quality of your offerings, and managing your cash flow. And others will cite specific techniques they’ve used that have paid dividends — the details of their particular business.

And, if you’re asking the right people, they’ll all be right. You see, in business, it doesn’t take just one thing to be successful. Many of you may have seen one of my favorite movies, City Slickers. It’s a story about three friends from New York who are looking for adventure. They go on a cattle drive and end up getting more than they bargained for. The lead character, played by Billy Crystal, is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis and is searching for meaning in his life. At one point, he asks Curly, the sage old cattle hand, about the meaning of life. Holding up his index finger, Curly tells him that the meaning of life is about just one thing. Crystal’s character is thrilled because he thinks he’s about to learn what the secret to life is. He asks Curly to tell him what that one thing is and anxiously awaits the answers. Curly responds, “That’s what you need to figure out for yourself.”

Curly is telling him that the secret to life is different for each one of us. The same is true in business. The secret to success in business is different for each company and each person. The challenge for you is to figure out which ingredients are most critical for your personal success. What unique talents and characteristics can help you achieve success in your profession? What things set your company apart from the competition?  No individual is going to be the best at every trait that contributes to success in business and no company is going to surpass the competition in every area. Figure out what sets you or your company apart from the rest and focus on those strengths.

One thing I can tell you is that in business you’re dealing with a delicate ecosystem. You must balance the needs of all the stakeholders in a company. You have the shareholders, employees, customers, vendors, and the public. Each group has its specific interests in the success of the business.  If you let one group’s interests get out of balance with the others, you’re going to have problems. For instance, focusing solely on maximizing shareholder return may cause you to make decisions that are detrimental to the other groups. A focus on short-term profitability could lead someone to pay their employees too little causing the company to lose key talent necessary to its long-term health. Or the focus on profits could cause the company to squeeze vendors to the point that they can no longer provide their product or service to the company. Suddenly the company is without a key vendor, disrupting its work flow.

My advice is that when you ask those people what their secrets to success have been, make sure you apply that advice in a balanced way that does not disrupt that delicate ecosystem. If someone tells you their success has come from relentless pursuit of profit or quality, consider how those goals must be balanced with the company’s other pursuits to meet the needs of all the stakeholders. In the end, business isn’t just about one thing. It’s about many things all working in harmony. It’s your job to figure out which are most important to your personal and your company’s success.