“John, the team has to understand that winning is our number-one priority. Winning eclipses everything.”
That’s what the CEO of a booming Bay Area fintech company told me shortly after he hired me to help accelerate his company’s already impressive success. I was meeting with him to hear his views on his team’s performance opportunities.
“Of course, the ideal scenario is for us to win together,” he went on, explaining his aspirations for the executive team. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about winning – period.”
The intensity in this CEO’s voice was clear, and I’d heard similar mantras from many other business leaders over the years. In my stints as a CFO at Microsoft and Novartis, I encountered this “win no matter what” mentality dozens of times, and I’ve often run across it working with clients at my executive coaching and leadership development firm too.
It’s not surprising that such a mindset is so prevalent in the corporate world. After all, leaders face intense pressure to succeed – not only from shareholders, competitors, and boards of directors, but from their very own teams.
And yet, I’ve also spent many quiet moments with senior leaders who lamented the harshness of a “take no prisoners” culture. These leaders have often told me that the pressure to maintain this posture puts them at odds with their highest ambitions – things like leading a balanced life, helping others succeed, treating people with dignity, and so on.
In fact, while senior business leaders might not reveal these vulnerabilities in public, they’ve often privately told me they feel torn between the imperative to deliver awe-inspiring results and the moral sacrifices they think they have to make to achieve them.
For example, one rising star on my team at Microsoft confessed, “I think I have the talent to become a corporate vice president, but I’m not sure I’ve got – or want – the killer instinct to get there!” That is, she felt torn between her personal values and the Machiavellian maneuvering she believed getting to CVP would require.
Although achieving success while living a life you can be proud of might sound like a paradox, the truth is that this dilemma can be resolved – and interestingly enough, the resolution lies in the definition of “success” itself.
To show you what I mean, I’d like to take a step back and examine a distinction we hear a lot about in today’s business world: the difference between the “what” and the “how” of a targeted outcome.
The “what” is our business results – sales growth, profits, innovation, market share, customer satisfaction, and so on. The “how,” on the other hand, consists of a series of behaviors on the road to get those results. In other words, the “how” is the way we interact with the humans around us as we strive for the “what.”
The key here is that our mindsets and values inform our behaviors, which in turn produce business results – ideally the results we’re aiming for.
But of course, you’re not the only person whose behavior impacts your business results. Those outcomes also depend on the behaviors of the people you work with: bosses, peers, team members, and even customers.
It follows logically, then, that the way to maximize results is to optimize your interaction with other people, the humans around you. That’s the “how” that leads to the “what” you want. Neglecting the “how” eventually negatively impacts the “what” – kind of like killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Imagine you own a restaurant at a busy airport. Most of your customers aren’t regulars; they’re just passing through. What’s more, local labor is plentiful and cheap – so you decide to cut corners on meal quality and pay your employees a pittance.
At first glance, this business model seems to yield great results: your transaction volume stays high because the airport is always busy – and you never see your dissatisfied customers again, so who cares if they’re unhappy? Meanwhile, your stingy wages keep costs low, and when an employee complains you simply replace them with one of the faceless applicants lined up at your door. Seems like a successful approach, doesn’t it?
Well, like I said a moment ago – that depends entirely on your definition of “success.”
If your “what” is only to make money, then poor service and low salaries will certainly get you to that goal. At least in the short term. However, if your “how” includes things like serving delicious meals, offering convenience to busy travelers, and providing employment to people who need it, then shortchanging customers and employees isn’t acceptable. With those conditions in mind, no matter how much money you’re making, you’ll never feel proud of your work – or at peace with yourself.
As you can see, success can show up in lots of other places besides your financial statements.
I’m not saying hitting your goals is not important. It is. Especially if you want to keep your job. I’m saying the surest way of attaining sustainable success you can be proud of is by focusing on how you do what you do.
This is the concept of “winning beyond winning” or “success beyond success”. When you work toward objectives in a way that’s congruent with your most important values, you win – even if you don’t hit your stated goals – simply because you’ve acted with integrity.
This approach is more than a platitude for consoling yourself in case you miss the corporate mark. It’s a measure of intellectual honesty, and an effective acid test for judging performance you can be proud of.
What’s more, by focusing on your behavior, you double down on the only thing that’s truly within your control – your ability to choose your response in the situation. In every circumstance, there are factors outside your control. But one factor that’s always within your control is your ability to choose your course of action, even if you can’t control the outcome of that choice. As the sacred Hindu text of the Bhagavad-Gita says, “You have a right to your action, but not to the fruits of your action.”
As human beings, we’re endowed with consciousness, the awareness of the choices around us. This awareness allows us to reflect on whether our behavior aligns with our values, whether we “walk our talk.”
Next time you’re faced with an apparent choice between “success” or honoring your values, take a moment to pause, breathe, and reflect – and consider the possibility of broadening your definition of “success.” You might discover there’s a way for you to get everything you want.