We live in a world of “What have you done for me lately?” And when we say “lately,” we mean today or this week. Our society suffers from an acute case of instant gratificationitis. Wall Street wants to see a return on its investment—now! It’s not necessarily concerned about seeing a company being built for the long haul. I bought the stock yesterday; what’s it worth today? Sports fans want to see their team win now. It doesn’t matter if the coach inherited a team with a losing record in desperate need of an overhaul—can you win today? It’s the only thing that matters to impatient fans.
But to build something truly great takes time. The greatest organizations of any kind were built by people who had a vision and executed on it one building block at a time. We often talk about instant success because the time between when something hits the public consciousness and when it really takes off can be relatively short. But what we miss are the years of planning and execution that preceded that public awareness. That overnight success we clamor for is really the result of years of work and dedication to bring an idea to fruition.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, is a great example. He certainly had to be an overnight success—he was a billionaire by age 23. His success must have been instantaneous. But if you read Zuckerberg’s story, you will learn that his father started teaching him computer programming when he was in middle school. His father even got him a programming tutor to help him along. The success of Facebook can be attributed not to a few years of work on the part of Zuckerberg and his colleagues but to a decade-long journey he took.
In the same way we think and talk about overnight success, we often attribute that success to an individual. In the case of Facebook, we attribute its tremendous success to Zuckerberg. And while he’s the face of the company as its chairman and CEO, did you know that he was one of five cofounders of the company? Even the movie The Social Network, which details the early years of what would become Facebook, focuses almost completely on Zuckerberg.
And it’s the same for Microsoft. Bill Gates is synonymous with the company he founded. The same can be said for Apple and Steve Jobs. We somehow want to attribute the success of these organizations to one person. We love the Horatio Alger-type rags-to-riches story. Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college, went on to found a technology company we all know. Not only that, but he also was fired from the company, only to come back to help save it and take it to new heights, bringing the world devices we could have never imagined.
But it’s not just about Jobs or Gates or Zuckerberg. Sure they are incredibly bright visionaries who have achieved almost unparalleled success, but they didn’t do it alone. Jobs had Steve Wozniak and a host of others who contributed to his success. Gates had Paul Allen. Zuckerberg had four partners. It takes more than one person to build a company the size of Apple or Microsoft or Facebook.
What you can say about these three entrepreneurs is that they all were very successful in surrounding themselves with people who could help make their visions into reality. The ability to identify, recruit, and retain talented individuals who could help them take an idea and turn it into a successful company is something they all must have shared because they didn’t do it alone. As “sexy” as it might seem to us to attribute all the success of an Apple or Microsoft to just one person, it’s just not accurate. These companies aren’t the work of just one person any more than they were overnight successes.
If you want to build a company that is here in 30, 50, or even 100 years, you don’t want to lay the foundation overnight. And if you expect that type of long-term success, then you need to have great people willing to dedicate their work to building something bigger than themselves. People who share the vision of what the company can become and are talented enough to help get it there. It can’t be about “What have you done for me lately?” It can’t be about abandoning the ship the first time things turn south. It’s about long-term commitment to building something great—together.