Thoughts on Success – in a career and in life

a personal potential

There are a lot of definitions of success and formulas for achieving it. For example, J. Paul Getty is said to have recommended, “Rise early, work hard, strike oil.”

Elbert Hubbard is credited as the author of an often quoted description of a person who has achieved success as one “who has worked well, laughed often, and loved much.” This has some similarities with Andrew Carnegie’s statement that “There is little success where there is little laughter.”

There are also similarities in the way people as different as George Patton and Booker T. Washington said they measured success:

“I don’t measure a person’s success by how high he climbs, but by how high he bounces when he hits bottom.” George S. Patton

“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” Booker T. Washington

Noting that most successful careers are not planned, Peter Drucker put it this way: Most successful careers result from understanding what your values are, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, the kinds of situations you work well in and the kinds of situations you don’t work so well in. Then you try to find a fit with all of that.

When a student in one of Goodwill’s Excel Centers asked me what the keys to my success have been, I put it in pretty simple terms, “I got a good education; I’ve worked hard all my life; and I’ve never stopped learning.”

Another approach: The best way to succeed is simply to exceed the expectations others have of you. If you exceed the expectations of your customers, they’ll probably keep buying from you. If you exceed the expectations of your boss, you’ll probably get to keep your job. Of course, after a time of exceeding expectations, the way you are performing becomes what others expect. Then, if you are to continue to exceed their expectations, you have to improve. And the cycle never stops.

During my career I have met countless people who get no enjoyment or satisfaction from what they do for a living and who want to make a career change in hopes of getting more satisfaction from the work they do going forward. I give them the same advice I frequently give young people who have no specific career goals or aspirations. I tell them to look for a place where:

  • There’s a good values fit. Your values and those of an employer don’t have to be identical, but they had better be compatible. Otherwise, you’re going to have problems.
  • You can use your abilities to a substantial degree. Otherwise, you’re going to be frustrated.
  • You can learn and grow. That’s more important today than ever.
  • You think you are likely to enjoy the people you work with. After all, you might be spending half your waking hours with them.

If you get all four of those, you’re probably better off than 95% of the population. I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have had all four in abundance my entire career.

My favorite description of a successful life, though, has developed in part as a result of having known through my work literally thousands of people who have had significant disabilities limiting their occupational choices, but who have not let their circumstances prevent them from making the most of their abilities and opportunities. Many of them have been people who “worked well, laughed often, and loved much.” I wrote about a few of those individuals in a December 2013 post to this blog I titled, “The Magnificence of the Ordinary.”

Their examples, along with those of many others, have strongly influenced my idea of a successful life:

When you get to the end of your life, you compare what you did with what you might have done, and you compare the kind of person you were with the kind of person you might have been. It’s a relative measure, not an absolute. It’s really about how close you came to developing your potential.

How and why I went to work for Goodwill Industries

In the last piece I wrote for this blog, I offered some reflections upon retiring from a 45-year career as a Goodwill Industries executive. In this piece, I will write about how that career began.

I joined Goodwill four years after I graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Industrial Engineering. However, if anyone had told me then that I would spend all but a few of the next 50 years working for Goodwill Industries, I would have considered them delusional. Yet, I cannot imagine a career that would have been a better fit for someone who’s wired the way I am.

Most successful careers are not planned. Peter Drucker put it this way: Most successful careers are a result of understanding what your values are, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at, what kinds of situations you work well in and what kinds of situations you don’t work so well in. Then you try to find a fit with all of that. That’s not necessarily easy to do and sometimes it comes only after a succession of not-so-good experiences.

But a good fit can also come from being open to possibilities you never really thought about before – perhaps as a result of a part-time job, a volunteer experience, or just by getting to know people with backgrounds and experiences different from yours. And then, when you do find a fit that seems promising, you continue to learn as much as you can through whatever means you can. The results can be tremendously rewarding in a number of ways. At least, that’s been the case with me for over four decades.

My career path started with a volunteer experience. Two years after I graduated from college, I was living in Washington D.C. while completing my military commitment. I was single, had a lot of free time, and attended a church that was heavily involved in community service. Every Saturday morning, they had a two-hour program for children with disabilities. Nearly all of the kids lived in low income households, and they relied on the church for transportation. I volunteered, and every Saturday morning I went to the homes of some of the children, picked them up, took them to the church, then took them back home again. They were great kids, and I got a lot of satisfaction from doing that.

The church also offered a tutoring program on Thursday evenings for teenagers who lived in low income neighborhoods. I volunteered and for more than a year I tutored two boys 13-14 years old, one-on-one. I had never done anything like that before, and I got so much satisfaction from the experience I started wondering if I could find a place where I could use my industrial engineering skills, get a similar kind of satisfaction, and get paid for it. I called several not-for-profit organizations that were headquartered in the Washington area, described my background, and asked them if they had any jobs for someone like me. Goodwill Industries was one of those organizations.

That initial conversation turned into a six-month process that included numerous meetings with national Goodwill staff and several Goodwill CEOs, interspersed with visits to two local Goodwills and a Goodwill convention. After much procrastination, I eventually decided to enter an executive training program offered by what is now Goodwill Industries International. It meant taking a 25% pay cut, accepting the lowest of three job offers I had at the time, and making a four-year commitment to work in a field that was totally foreign to me and that certainly carried no prestige with it – at least not in those days. I was 26 years old at the time.

The decision to go to work for Goodwill was the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life and was, at its core, a faith-based decision. Simply put, I believed this was what I was supposed to do. Over the past forty-five years, that belief has been confirmed in ways I never would have imagined.

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Some thoughts upon retiring from a long career

The “farewell” tour I’ve made during the months leading up to my retirement has been one of the highlights of my entire career. Listening to the stories and hearing the comments of hundreds of employees and students, I’ve never felt better about the organization – our people, our culture, and what we are doing.

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There’s no doubt that the impact Goodwill is having is far greater than ever. The way we are linking services internally and with other organizations in a holistic, multi-generational approach is, I’m confident, going to have lasting impact and help begin to reduce some major social problems. And yet, there’s so much more that needs to be done.

My career has been a constant learning and growing process, but the learning really began accelerating in 2004 when we became directly involved in public education by opening the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School.

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Since then, Goodwill has evolved at a rapid rate that has further accelerated the learning throughout the organization. And while we don’t claim to have all the answers, based on our experiences as well as what we’ve learned from others during the past decade, I’m convinced that if we are ever going to substantially reduce a lot of the social problems that are plaguing U.S. society today, we must:

  • Continue working vigorously to raise education attainment levels, and we must ensure that at every step along the way we’re preparing students well for what comes next.
  • Greatly increase the number of affordable, accessible, high quality early childhood development opportunities for children in low income households. Because of the way the brain develops, the years 0-3 are even more important than ages 3-5. The earlier we start, the better.

In addition, to break a cycle of poverty, we need to take a long-term, holistic, multi-generational approach that leverages the resources and capabilities of multiple organizations within and across the sectors in focused ways designed to prevent problems, help kids develop, strengthen families, and make much more effective use of existing resources.

Goodwill in central Indiana is taking such an approach with a growing number of families and organizations, and that approach is attracting a growing amount of national attention. But while others can learn from our experiences, we must also continue to learn from others.

And while Goodwill’s board of directors and new CEO, Kent Kramer, will determine the organization’s direction going forward, there’s a strong base of knowledge and experience to build on and a lot of resources that can be deployed to further increase impact.

I don’t know what the organization we’ve built will look like ten years from now, but I know it will be different. Goodwill must continue trying new ways to grow its businesses and accomplish its mission; it must continue to learn; and it must continue to adapt as the world around it changes. Yet while I can’t predict what the organization will look like a decade from now, I do hope to be around watching from the sidelines, and I fully expect to be amazed!

Goodwill’s evolution – an organic process

For years, I’ve considered the most unique aspect of Goodwill to be the way and the extent to which we blend business and a social mission. More recently, though, perhaps equally unique is the extent to which we are leveraging our resources and capabilities with those of others to create new opportunities that benefit people and communities. I’ll explain.

A lot of social problems have become worse over the last forty years despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations. Part of the problem lies in the “silo” structure of the public sector and the fragmented nature of the not-for-profit sector. In many cases, organizations are doing very good work addressing pieces of a larger problem, but seldom have we been connecting the pieces well. As a result, we have not been solving the big problems.

A lot of our work at Goodwill is now focused on connecting pieces. Some of those exist within our own organization and some involve other organizations that have complementary capabilities. We see numerous examples of this, as Goodwill retail employees and Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) moms enroll in an Excel Center or begin working toward a certification through a class taught by Ivy Tech or Vincennes University.

More examples: We have Eskenazi Health referring expectant mothers to NFP and also hiring graduates of The Excel Centers. We see Indianapolis Day Nursery Association offering employment to NFP moms, helping them work toward certifications, and providing high quality care for their children. And we see graduates of Goodwill-operated schools becoming employed with help from TalentSource, Goodwill’s job preparation and placement service.

The extent to which Goodwill is evolving into an array of networks that link services across organizational boundaries in a holistic, often whole family manner is unique. This approach brings high quality services together to make more effective use of existing community resources and result in greater lasting impact. With sufficient scale, this approach can play a role in reducing generational poverty.

The way we are evolving into this array of networks is not the result of a brilliant grand plan. Rather, it’s an organic process that is ongoing, and it’s largely a product of three primary factors:

  • A lot of smart, talented people who bring to their work not just their knowledge and skills, but also a strong commitment to what we are about – in other words, they bring their heads and their hearts.
  • A culture characterized, in part, by a constant desire to find ways to improve and further increase our long term impact in the lives of people and the communities where we operate. It’s also a culture in which people generally work well with each other.
  • Strong relationships with a lot of people in a lot of other fine organizations across all the sectors.

It’s also important to note that everything we do is built on a solid financial foundation that depends largely on the oldest part of Goodwill – our retail system, which provides jobs for 1300 people whose options are limited by disability or other significant barrier and that is, in turn, dependent on donations of used goods from and purchases by hundreds of thousands of central Indiana residents.

This organic evolutionary process results in a Goodwill that is constantly changing. We try things, we learn, we adapt as the world around us changes, and we evolve as an organization. It’s the approach we take to continue increasing long term impact and help reverse some of the negative trends we’ve seen in our society over the last forty years.

Forty years experience summarized on one chart

Forty years after starting my Goodwill career, I attempted to summarize on one chart the essence of what I have learned about the ingredients necessary to sustain organizational success over a long period of time. Here’s a brief explanation of what appears at the end of this post.

  • Every organization exists in a larger context and is affected by many external factors, including changes in the economy, demographics, technology, competition, laws or regulations, the political climate, and external shocks, which can be natural or man-made disasters. Organizations must be able to adapt quickly and effectively to such changes or risk becoming ineffective, irrelevant, or extinct.
  • It can be useful to keep in mind that organizations change for three reasons: They see a need or an opportunity; they have a sense or fear of something that might happen; or they change in response to something that’s already happened.
  • Organizational leadership in the not-for-profit sector is a function of three components: governance, management, and aspirations (or vision). The organization’s leaders should begin with the end in mind, i.e. by asking how they will measure success. They should translate the aspirations into concrete, measurable goals and align everything toward the goals, including organizational structure, business models, products and services, resource development and allocation, recruitment and hiring, training and development, performance reporting, recognition and reward systems, policies and practices, internal and external communication, and organizational culture. The leaders should be aware that most organizations are perfectly aligned for the results they are getting, and if any major factor is significantly out of alignment, it will be nearly impossible for the organization to excel.
  • The leaders must also recognize that none of the above is static. Everything is subject to change as new opportunities or challenges arise and as the external environment changes.
  • Success is a function of three elements: (1) impact, which is a function of mission-related results, (2) sustainability, which is a function of financial strength, and (3) adaptability, which is a function of the organization’s culture. An organization can be successful for a time with just the first two, but it will cease being so if its culture does not enable it to adapt effectively as the world in which it operates changes.
  • A good overall objective for a not-for-profit organization is to maximize mission-related impact while maintaining a financial position that enhances long term viability.
  • The leaders of a successful organization must constantly be aware that sustained success can result in succumbing to the demons of inertia, complacency, myopia, or arrogance. They must remind themselves of the old proverb, “Whom the gods would destroy they give forty years of success.” Today, though, it doesn’t take anywhere near forty years for any of those demons to cause an organization to be destroyed by outside forces or to self-destruct.
  • In the final analysis, the most important factor determining the success or failure of an organization is the quality of its leadership or lack thereof. Successful organizations have leadership that:
    • understands its context
    • knows what it wants to accomplish
    • aligns everything toward that end
    • is never content with the status quo
    • and continues to learn, adapt, and evolve

This is one model of the ingredients necessary for sustained organizational success. But it’s good to keep in mind George E. P. Box’s admonition, “All models are wrong. Some models are useful.”

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