If you had your choice, would you try to go from bad to good, keep something that is good from becoming bad or make something that is good way better? Be careful how you choose, you may be setting yourself up for an experience that you won’t enjoy.
It’s easy to go from bad to good, from failure to a small success, from nothing to something. We have all heard variations of a common adage, but Pierre S. du Pont IV may have said it best when he quipped:
“I’m in a wonderful position: I’m unknown, I’m underrated, and there’s nowhere to go but up.”
Du Pont, like so many other successful politicians, also illustrates the rest of my observation – ‘up’ is a relative term and a hard trend to continue. He actually had a pretty good run; many politicians opt for the second choice and simply continue with a stable albeit mediocre career in the same office. Du Pont tried to be great, he made significant progress, but he failed to achieve his ultimate goal. Still, it’s hard to call it a failure, after all there can only be one President of the United States.
I once worked as a consultant in a small office of an international firm. When I started, there were only about 6 of us and we had very little business. Fortunately we had skills that complemented each other and we worked for a man who knew how to maximize that particular advantage. We moved from putting up crummy numbers to great numbers – for our size. We benefited from that individually (most of us were promoted) and collectively (we were allowed to expand). We grew quickly to about 20 people, and then things became hard. Selling enough work to keep 20 people busy in a small market was a daunting task. To supplement our revenue, we went on the road; the Hartford, CT office was soon supplying consulting talent to companies from Providence, RI to San Antonio, TX. We stayed at that size for a while but things started to collapse. Despite the fact that we were recognized and rewarded, not to mention the fact that we were learning a great deal, we were working our butts off to support the partners of the firm. Becoming a partner (way better for us) in the (then) Big-8 required a level of passion and dedication that most of us didn’t have. The partner we worked for had it in abundance, but there wasn’t much opportunity to join him at the top, at least not in Hartford and maintaining the status quo required a life of near-constant travel that few of us wanted.
Bad to good had been easy, remaining good was going to be too hard and becoming great required a commitment most of us didn’t want to make, or didn’t want to waste on that firm. Some of us went on to establish our own businesses, some took jobs in private industry and some went to rival firms.
Bad-to-good, or nothing-to-something requires hard work, shared sacrifice and an esprit de corps even if there are only a couple of people involved.
Good-to-better, or something-to-something-bigger requires that certain people maintain a pace of hard work and shared sacrifice while others demonstrate their passion as leaders and decision makers.
Better-to-best requires the sustained hard work of a committed crew but it also requires that the passion for success replace sacrifice as the shared component in the workforce – that’s hard. That’s hard because most people aren’t passionate about very many things, and the things that they are passionate about are personal. Family, religion, sports and activities from biking to rock climbing and woodworking to baking are all competing for peoples’ passion and energy; there may not be any left for business – your business.
We see this cycle play out in companies, professional associations, sports teams, school systems and governments large and small. Building an enterprise, starting a club, forming a committee, regardless of size is like building a fire to heat a room. It’s easy to start a fire, but unless you build it correctly, it will quickly burn out. If you build a fire correctly, you can keep it going but it requires constant work; fuel has to be added, ashes have to be removed and someone has to pay attention to things like the temperature of the chimney. Ignoring the possible conflagration, making a fire large enough to heat your entire house requires a shared passion to heat with wood. If you’re wondering why your house is cold, as it were, ask yourself if you have all the ingredients of a sustainable fire.