Guidelines for success in the age of initiative

Feb. 10, 2010

By John R. Graham

We comb the news for even the slightest indication that the recession is at long last fading into history. We are so preoccupied looking for hopeful signs about the future, we miss the extent to which life has changed over the last two years, particularly the business environment.

“Just take me to the money” declares a successful sales executive in a meeting with colleagues and co-workers. Surprisingly, perhaps, his words are met with uneasy silence. Even in sales, the world has changed.

There are other indications of change. “Team think” is under siege as employees now strive to be noticed and make an effort to be recognized for their personal contributions and accomplishments. There may be too much of a downside to being a “team player.”

It appears that we are entering a new period. Organizations are beginning to flatten and the new CEOs appear to be assertive, strong and decisive leaders, more interested in results than in the process. Here are eight characteristics needed to be a success in the “Age of Initiative.”

1. Turn on the paranoia. The abrupt resignation of P&G’s iconic CEO, L.J. Lafley, coincided with the company’s recent lackluster performance. P&G wasn’t ready when consumers moved to the company’s lower-priced products.

Wal-Mart, even with its recent growth leadership, is paranoid about the possibility of losing newly won customers once the times are better. This is why the company is launching a series of marketing initiatives, something that was unheard of in the past.

2. Dreaming can lead to a rude awakening. Whenever someone says, “This is going to be the biggest thing ever to hit our company,” place your bet that failure is on the way.

Recent history is a reminder of what can––and does––happen. Banks and mortgage brokers made “fantasy” loans to dream-driven consumers, who quickly became victims of the new American “nightmare.”

Being excited about the future is a poor substitute for actually making the future happen.

3. Learn from poor performance. Even if we didn’t use “invincible,” that’s how we acted. Nothing can bring us down or so we like to think.

A business executive recalls the time he was a student in an advanced public speaking course in college. When he finished a major class presentation, the professor began his critique by saying, “That was by far the worst speech I have ever heard,” as he stripped the student of his last shred of competence. What he thought was a good speech, was a disaster. Regaining his composure, he vowed to “never, ever let that happen again––and it didn’t.” He ended the course with a top grade. To this day, the professor’s words are a daily reminder to never be overly confident.

Denying or making excuses for poor performance perpetuates mediocrity and making more excuses.

4. Take responsibility. A good example of what brings down businesses and individuals faster than just about anything else was expressed by Bob Lutz, just as General Motors was staring down the barrel of bankruptcy. The recently retired GM vice chairman commented to the New York Times that GM had gone through “a world of hurt, much of it not of our own doing.”

Those words may go down in B-School casebooks as one of the most notorious instances of a corporate culture’s inability to accept responsibility. In effect, he was saying that the Japanese carmakers had an unfair cost advantage, US labor demanded too much and rising gasoline prices were a deterrent to the company’s vehicle sales. It was just a lot of bad breaks that did GM in.

It was the inability of management to take responsibility that did GM in.

5. What we want to believe leads to trouble.
“How long will the new stores last?” is a slightly cynical game my wife and I play as we take walks through a nearby seasonal community. Each spring new stores blossom like petunias to fill empty spaces. How long will it last? Will it be six months, one year or long-term? Most are sure-fire losers. For example, a new shop featuring gelato had great eye appeal––but the portions were tiny and prices were high. It was a business born to fail––and it did.

When the business or project driven by a dream of success or unbounded enthusiasm overrides rational analysis, failure is in sight.

6. Share what you know. Why do so many businesses in a particular industry look so much alike they appear to have been cloned and sending the message that one is just about as good as the next? Even so, there are other companies that communicate a differentiating message, one in which they willingly share what they know.

First American Insurance Underwriters, a life insurance brokerage firm in Needham, Mass., communicates its competence in various ways, including through articles written by its sales staff. “We want to connect with life insurance producers who are looking for experts who can help them grow their business,” says Kenneth A. Shapiro, president. “We want to be known for our competence and not sales pitches.”

7. We only know it if we can express it. While words are plentiful, particularly in marketing and sales, substance is often equally illusive. It’s really rather simple: If someone doesn’t sound as if they’re making sense, they probably don’t know what they are talking about.

Robert McDonald, P&G’s new CEO, a former U.S. Army Ranger and a 29-year veteran of the company, knew what he wanted early in life. When he was eleven, he wrote to his congressman to apply to West Point. “In his teen years, he persuaded school administrators to let him take typing and speech classes to develop two skills he hoped would helped him succeed if he got into the academy,” states The New York Times. “He did, and graduated 13th in a class of 875….”

If we say we know what we mean, but just can’t say it, there’s a very good chance we don’t know it.

8. The grass doesn’t cut itself. One of the reasons why business is having great difficulty breaking through the current productivity barrier may be caused by what can be called “the cubicle mindset.” In other words, it’s a view that personal responsibility begins and ends in the confines of my space.

One business executive tells of growing up in a single-parent home, where it was assumed he was in charge of certain chores. “I learned a very important lesson in life before I reached ten,” he says. “It was both simple and profound: the grass doesn’t cut itself. The higher the grass grows, the more difficult it is to cut it, particularly when all you have is a push mower.”

In the last century, much of personal identity came from the organization; in this century the identity of the organization will come from those with initiative, who recognize that the grass doesn’t cut itself.

There’s a transparency to these eight guidelines for success in an age of initiative. They move seamlessly between individual and organization and back again. What benefits one, has value for the other.

“In a world where jobs can be sent overseas, tasks can be automated and the feverish pace of technology can render last year’s innovation, obsolete,” stated Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, “students will have to learn how to think differently than their parents in order to survive and prosper.” Interestingly, that’s a perfect description of the age of initiative.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for business publications and speaks on business, marketing and sales issues. Contact him at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170; (617) 328-0069; [email protected]. The company’s web site is