Defining Your Success

One of the challenges that comes with running a business is the competitiveness of your fellow business owners, entrepreneurs, or even by those working within an organisation. Your status, and therefore people’s willingness to listen to your opinions come from their perceived notion of how successful you have been.

It’s an understandable concept. People don’t want to take advice or listen to the stories of someone who hasn’t achieved the goal you expect them to. The problem tends to be how we conclude if someone is successful or not. This is an issue that has been on my mind for many years, the marks of success, and was re-awoken recently when I was asked how much money my business makes.

In my experience at business events, two questions tend to be commonplace. “How big is your team?” and “how much money do you make?” These are the traditional marks of success and serve to rank you compared to the person asking. Money and power over others are easy quantifiers, having one is good, having both is great. Your worth summed up with numbers, a grade that we can quickly build a hierarchy from. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not ashamed of the money I make, and my team is of a good size for what we do, in fact for how much we achieve I believe we’re doing fantastically. What I dislike is the concept that my worth and my status in any given moment can be summed up into numbers.

Sadly it’s not just within the business sector that we see this behaviour. Within non-profit organisations and religious institutions, people still believe the bigger you are, the more effective you’re being, despite what grassroots level impact you’re having. People tend to donate to the large non-profits while smaller grassroots non-profits struggle financially.

If you’re seen to convert the most people to your religion for example, then you’re doing something right, even if behind closed doors nothings changed in people’s lives. You and your institution become famous based on the congregation size and no doubt you’ll be provided with international opportunities and roles on boards etc. Business, charity and religion have become live action pokemon, you’ve got to catch them all to win.

The mindset that organisations with the most money and biggest teams are the most successful leaves no room for the lifestyle business owners, little place for social entrepreneurs or people driven by impact over income, and lacks understanding of today’s gig economy. Today’s business landscape has changed from the days when money and power were the markers of someone’s success so much that isn’t it about time we give up these old-fashioned concepts and find something new?

Out with the old – Defining new success

maslow's hierarchy of needs

Defining success in today’s society is problematic due to the multitude of goals people have. How do we choose if someone has been successful without knowing what they were aiming for to begin with? We now live in a society where a large amount of us no longer need to strive for our basic needs and can now aim for the fulfilment of our psychological and self-fulfilment needs. We can afford to be generous, seek happiness over wealth, be creative and strive for adventure. With so much choice now how do we define what success looks like?

This issue isn’t new; Business Insider published an article called “How 9 Incredibly Successful People Define Success“, and each person had a different idea of what they considered success to be. Considering each person on the list is famous I suspect fame is part of Business Insider’s marks of success, but that aside, each successful person in their article was striving for something different.

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it” – Maya Angelou.

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm” – Winston Churchill.

It seems to be that success is personal. Each of us defines our own goals for success and aims for them individually. Sounds ideal. Surely this means no one can then judge you on how successful you are without first knowing a whole lot about you? That does seem pretty good, but it can also lead to issues. What if everyone in an organisation sees success differently, each person will start pulling in different directions. It can be useful (perhaps even vital) to have different opinions within an organisation to challenge and refine goals, but ultimately there does need to be a point of success.

Defining Corporate Success

So how do you define success on a corporate level?

Brene Brown in her book “Dare to Lead” has a great exercise that we’ve adopted into our organisations, “paint done”. It’s a simple concept of explaining what success looks like, what should be in existence when the project is done. If you’ve not read or heard about this yet I highly recommend it.

On a project by project level, this has helped tremendously when it comes to communicating between teams, particularly when mixing creatives with code heads.

Sadly all too often I see organisations haven’t painted done when it comes to the overall goals of the organisation. What would it look like for the organisation to be successful and in turn what does it look like for each team member to be successful? Perhaps a better question at a business event is what does success look like to you? Followed by how far do you feel you are from achieving your goal?

Knowing your goal both personally and corporately can be an effective motivator, helping to keep people on track. This is particularly true for international organisations where communication is less direct. Mixing indirect communication with cultural differences can lead to departments pulling in multiple directions and the formation of fiefdoms. The bigger the organisation, the more clear the goal should be.

Knowing what success looks like on a corporate level also helps with evaluating leadership. As an organisation passes through generations of C level team members (CEO, COO, CFO etc.) each new leader will understandably want to put their mark on the organisation. If that mark is to change the direction of the organisation entirely without first achieving the current stated goal or to hold on to the way its always been done when that way is no longer effective at achieving the goal, then you’re going to leave a large number of employees unmotivated and searching for meaning. The same is true if the leadership fails to communicate the vision of an organisation with their team. Knowing what success looks like has a significant impact on the effectiveness of an organisation, and the motivation of its team.

My Personal Success

For me I look forward to the day that my business is no longer needed, that would mean that job is done, and I can move on to the next gap that needs filling. I don’t expect it to happen any time soon, and I’m going to enjoy the journey I’m on, but my business isn’t what defines me, it represents a part of me and a way in which I’ve decided to try to help. If I end up wealthy then great, I have no issue with that, but if not that’s fine too because it’s not been my goal from the start.

I measure my personal success on the positive impact I’m having, be it to one person or many, and the willingness to keep on trying. The day I give up trying my best to improve the world around me and the lives of the people in it then I can no longer consider myself successful. Until then, I am a success and will continue striving to be a successful person. My personal success is not a destination; it’s an attitude.

That said perhaps if you’re ever in the situation where someone asks you how much you make you can respond in a similar way to Taylor Mali in his poem “What Teachers Make”.

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