Posted by: kevinliebl | September 27, 2009

What is the Correct Definition of “Success”?

Gordon Gekko Fortune Magazine

Gordon Gekko

The dictionary defines success as, “suc•cess (noun), the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”.  Buried a little deeper in the definition, is the reference to, “a person who attains profit or prosperity”.  At what point, did the definition of “success” become so aligned with net worth?  I remember a line in a movie when I was very young where an overly aggressive executive made the comment that “net worth was a way of keeping score”.  I can’t recall the movie, but it created a lot of debate, because at the time, it was inappropriate to discuss your net worth, salary or success in business.  Much later, in the 1987 movie “Wall Street”, the character Gordon Gekko created the infamous line, “Greed is Good!”  Throughout the 80s and 90s it felt like society embraced Gordon Gekko’s philosophy, and materialism reset the definition of success.  We have reached a point where if someone comments that an individual is “very successful”; we assume it means they are very wealthy.  We never ask what they are successful at, because we assume the reference is to wealth.  The only question is, “how did they make their fortune?”

It was not always this way.  There was a time when you could be a successful artist, athlete, mentor, volunteer, parent, teacher and yes, businessman.  I have recently posted a number of articles discussing the changing corporate world and after a great deal of discussion, I believe one of the key factors driving this change is our new definition of success.  When the singular focus of our careers is to attain prosperity, everything else becomes a distraction.  Activities that don’t add to our net worth are considered a waste of time, and the “ends justify the means” seems to be a daily rationalization.

Many people will argue that this is not a recent phenomenon and that business has always been a cutthroat environment.  This may be true, however today it seems to permeate the entire family.  It feels to me that our advertising and marketing efforts have unfortunately succeeded, and we are all more materialistic and consumer focused than a generation or two ago.

Regardless of whether this is a new phenomenon, I am interested in how our definition of success has affected our corporate cultures.  When I look back on the companies I have worked for and think about the cultures, I see dramatic differences.  I worked for a company early in my career where the company was truly a family.  I loved the people I worked with and appreciated the bonds, the mentorship and executive leadership.  The company peaked and essentially fell off the radar over 20 years ago.  However, employees still meet every Friday the 13th at a specified location for reunions.  Most people look back on that experience as one of the best in their career.  On the other hand, when I think about the company where I made the most money in my career, the culture was terrible.  The only reason any of us stayed was that we were paid exceptionally well.  There was no moral compass within the organization and the stress levels were incredibly high.  There are no reunions and no one would attend if they were organized.

There was a time when success meant more than the bottom line.  It meant building teams of highly motivated people.  Individuals were proud to work for the company because it was an energizing environment.  The board of directors, the executive leadership team, middle management and every employee in the company understood that we were part of a family, and that the people were the most important asset.  This was not a slogan, but a true belief.  Companies focused on training their employees and nurturing skill sets.  Organizations offered back to the community, not as a public relations ploy, but because they knew it was the right thing to do.  Companies did everything they could do to avoid layoffs, rather than using it as a tool to increase profits.

Do we really have the right definition of “success”, or is there a definition that is more accurate – and in the long run, will be more effective at driving world-class companies?  Can profitability be a byproduct of companies being “successful” at creating a positive culture of growth, support, integrity and respect?


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  1. Good post as always, Kevin. I remember the first thing one of my business instructors in college drilled into us was that “companies exist for one reason, and one reason only – increase shareholder wealth”. I certainly don’t think that that statement is mutually exclusive with having strong ethics and integrity. The difference between companies that create wealth, or “success”, for their shareholders for the long haul vs. short term is often the ability of senior management to entrench a positive corporate culture. Companies that are able to see that if they build it – “it” being superior service or superior products delivered by motivated and engaged employees – then increased shareholder wealth will come, are likely to be healthier in the long run.

  2. You have really figured out what is important and ultimately lasting and will be a better leader for it. My hat is off to you!!

  3. The problem is that organizations don’t have a “responsibility” to give back. They earned their profits honestly and have every right to them. They can use them as they see fit. The shareholders deserve a return on their investments.

    The real question is how should they use the profits for maximum productivity? To build the company up more and more, to increase market share? Why? Is that the purpose of wealth and prosperity, to get more wealth?

    I think a beneficial use of wealth would be to reinvest back into the company with the specific purpose of aiding local nonprofits. Build the surrounding communities, help those who need it, and then you will see an even greater return, financially and socially. A good definition of success in this case would be the sum and value of your total interactions with people. How have you brought value to other people’s lives and how much value?

    For example, a local retailer selling another plasma screen to a upper/middle class family certainly will benefit both parties but could that same retailer use a percentage of its profits to purchase equipment for a local nonprofit in dire need of video equipment. In other words, they are successful at selling TV’s but also at touching other people’s lives in more fundamental ways. Imagine the possibilities…

  4. Great post…as usual. I think I know the company you are referring to in your post. I was there…it was a different era in business then. If you remember, once the wall-street, greed masters showed up, the company lost its identity and everyone fled.

    • Tim,

      Nice to hear from you. Yes, I do recall the history. We were referred to “the phoenix from the ashes” in the press when the culture was positive. The company did a dramatic turn-around and much of it (in my opinion) was due to a really good team. Once wall-street saw a winner and got involved, “yes” things went south. However, the employees still remember the positive experience. You may also recall the second company I mentioned in the blog. Everyone made good money, however, very few have fond memories. My point is that compensation and positive culture are two different things. Positive culture drives employee loyalty and passion for success. Great compensation is always nice, but it doesn’t create loyal or passionate employees.

      – Kevin

  5. Growth and success sometimes can be at odds. I recall walking into my first corporate position with a fast track tech company and listening to complaints from “old-timers” (3-4 years with the company) that the “family” culture was gone. Many of those people exited or were exited within a year. Wall Street wasn’t always kind, despite the fact that the company mostly made a lot of money and plenty of profits. Never enough, though. While the CEO complained to media about being judged on a quarterly basis, senior management got in the quarterly groove, and the hirings & RIWFs (aka firings) seemed to track well with the myopic short-term Street view rather than the 40,000-foot vista of projected long-term success. The company, which vaulted to Fortune 500 status in its heyday, is no more. Growth spawned by success can be an insidious killer if not managed carefully. There are annual reunions, but they remain bittersweet. We celebrate and reminisce about the once-great and powerful company. But I suspect the alums silently mourn the success that was lost.

  6. Hat’s off to this excellent post and thought process. This is the best way in which one can figure out “true value” for success.

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