How Do You and Your Organization Define Success?

Define Success.BlogHow do you define success? While the tendency is to focus on numbers, a pure financial focus can promote unethical behavior. The recent $1.2 billion accounting scandal at Toshiba is an example of an over-emphasis on profits. Enron, WorldCom, and Bernie Madoff are also worth mentioning. The Atlanta school system’s widespread cheating on students’ 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests is an example of how a singular focus on achieving numerical targets can have unintended consequences like jail time and fines.

Merriam-Webster defines success as “the fact of getting or achieving wealth.” But there are systems that incorporate a broader definition of success. For example, The Triple Bottom Line measures profit (the economic value created by the company or the economic benefit to the surrounding community and society), people (the fair and favorable business practices regarding labor and the community in which the company conducts its business), and planet (the use of sustainable environmental practices and the reduction of environment impact). The Balanced Scorecard is a management technique that isolates four separate areas for analysis: (1) learning and growth, (2) business processes, (3) customers, and (4) finance. These two techniques, along with pressure from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, social and environmental groups, and books like “Good Company” that rank organizations as an employer, seller, and steward, are sending a message that we should focus our attention on healthy and sustainable factors rather than just the bottom line.

What about the personal aspect of the question? Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, told the New York Times, “If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience, you will find your definition of success.” Sir Richard Branson is worth some $5 billion, and the Virgin founder equates success with being fully immersed in one’s work.

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way with his poem on success: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, or a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

So what does this all mean? Your organizational response to the question will drive what you value, which will influence what you measure. What you measure, you also reward, and what you reward is your definition of success. This is an ideal question to ask of senior management when doing strategic or business planning. On the personal side, the logic is the same. How we define success matters. Invest some time in asking these two questions. It will make a difference in how you manage your time, energy, and talents on both an organizational and personal level.