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.

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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.

On Talent and Culture

I frequently talk about the tremendous array of dedicated, talented people who are part of Goodwill’s team. They can be found at multiple levels in all parts of our organization, and they are the people who make things happen day in and day out. Goodwill’s accomplishments are really the sum of their accomplishments.

From time to time I am reminded of how fortunate – even blessed – we are to have so many terrific people. For example, this year we are opening four new Excel Centers – diploma-granting high schools for older youth and adults. Our talent sourcing staff posted 68 positions we needed to fill, and the response was amazing. We received approximately 3600 applications that our staff reviewed. They asked 728 of those applicants for additional information, then conducted nearly 400 telephone interviews. From those, approximately 100 were interviewed in person by a panel of staff, and 68 persons were hired. It is particularly reassuring to me that so many fine people want to be part of the work we are doing.

Another recent reminder came from visitors from a Goodwill organization in another state. They spent two days touring our operations and talking with our staff about their work. During those two days they repeatedly told me how impressed they were with the caliber of our people – at every level and in every place they visited. The fact that visitors who have seen many Goodwills and who themselves operate a very fine organization would make so many glowing comments about our staff meant a great deal to me.
What’s the key? We don’t really have any “secret sauce.” Perhaps it’s a different key for different people, and perhaps it’s the sum of several elements that might include:

  • A mission and a variety of services that are easy to become passionate about. There’s generally a pretty strong feeling that what we are doing is important and is helping others improve their lives.
  • A culture that insists on treating everyone in a respectful manner. This means in every direction – up, down, sideways, with those who are inside the organization and with those who aren’t.
  • A genuine desire to provide people with the resources they need so they can do their jobs well and to provide learning and growth opportunities for our people.
  • A strong effort to provide safe working conditions that are bright, clean, and pleasant places to be. Of course, a pleasant place to work is in large part a function of having people who are pleasant to be around – most of the time, at least.
  • A genuine desire to improve – to become more effective at accomplishing our mission, to achieve better results, and to be better stewards of all our resources.

We don’t always succeed at all of this. We’re human and we make mistakes. But the positives far outweigh the negatives, and the culture in our organization today is many times better than it was early in my career when we were much smaller. I’m very aware that with over 3,000 employees spread across approximately 80 locations, the potential for that culture to deteriorate is always present. But when I see the kind of work that goes into selecting new staff – for example, the kind of work demonstrated in filling those 68 new positions in the Excel Centers – and I see the caliber and ability of those who have recently joined our organization as well as those who have been with us for much longer – I know we’re in good hands and I’m confident the future is bright.

Networks – Part II

In my February 15, 2013 post, I wrote about Goodwill’s implementation of Nurse-Family Partnership as an example of a “network” approach to better align and leverage resources to improve lives and help break a cycle of generational poverty. It is a holistic, whole family approach that teaches and reinforces good parenting skills, helps improve pregnancy outcomes and the health of the child, and results in changes in parental behaviors and the environment in the home in ways that are highly conducive to the proper nurturing and development of the child.

Goodwill and other members of the Nurse-Family Partnership network also offer education and employment opportunities for the parents and provide assistance in dealing with housing, transportation, and other issues that are common in low income households. Overall, this approach is helping build stronger families and preventing a lot of social problems from developing later.

The network we have developed that supports and enhances Nurse-Family Partnership’s effectiveness in central Indiana is one of several networks Goodwill has been developing in recent years. In fact, our organization is evolving into a network of networks that are supported by and often linked by shared services.

We have a business development/employment network that includes a number of companies that contract with Goodwill for services that are performed in large part by Goodwill employees with disabilities, criminal histories, and/or low education levels – people who, in many cases, have few vocational options. We also have relationships with companies that hire individuals who are prepared and want to move into situations elsewhere that might offer better long term opportunities for them.

In addition, we are developing two new networks that will further enhance education options for young people and adults. One of those is a network of organizations in other communities and states that will operate Excel Centers under a licensing arrangement with us. The Excel Center model is unique, and those that become part of the Excel Center Network will have access to a lot of materials and services we have been developing over the past three years. They also will be able to shorten their learning curves and become effective more quickly as a result of our experiences.

Finally, we have recently launched the Indiana Network of Independent Schools (INIS) to offer services to other schools that do not currently have access to the level of academic, data analysis, and back office support services we have at Goodwill. By using services offered by INIS, the staff of those schools will be able to utilize their time more effectively to help children succeed.

Supporting all of these networks is an infrastructure that has developed to support Goodwill’s retail operations, commercial services, community-based initiatives for individuals and families, and the growing number of schools we operate.

This development of this “network of networks” is largely a result of two factors. One is the number and quality of relationships we have with many organizations in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. The other is a lot of talented staff who see how the resources and capabilities of others can be

combined or leveraged, sometimes in very creative ways, with our in-house resources and capabilities to substantially increase our overall effectiveness and impact and make better use of the total resources available in the communities in which we operate.

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.”

mcclellandmodel