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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