The journey matters -- in business and in life

11/17/2020
 

Everybody is disappointed after an election. Some immediately (based on the outcome), and pretty much everyone else over time (as promises made become promises unkept). It’s not due to politicians’ bad intentions (usually), but to their tendency to make too many -- and too unrealistic -- promises.

As the then-controversial British Member of Parliament Enoch Powell astutely observed, “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”

It’s the nature of business, too. I’m reminded of this every year when we close the books at our company. Some years are good to us financially; others less so. But no matter what the final tally is on Dec. 31, come Jan. 2, we haul ourselves up out of bed and start over with a new P&L. We never actually get there, wherever “there” is -- some sort of sustained financial security, I suppose.

Yet it’s not just political utopia and perpetual profitability that never fully arrive. Every product innovation falls short of the next innovation. Every high-flying company sooner or later returns to earth. Every fashion becomes unfashionable, every winner eventually loses, and everyone in charge in due course isn’t (something elected officials would be wise to remember).

Entropy will always have its way. As long as we manage our expectations, however, we can turn what might otherwise be frustration into inspiration.

“What have you done for me lately?” is a discouraging customer refrain, but “what can you do for me today?” presents an evergreen opening. When something breaks it’s a problem, but when something needs fixing it’s an opportunity. It really depends on your perspective. That which is imperfect presents an occasion for improvement. That which falls short provides an opportunity to advance. That which poses a challenge also offers a thrill.

As Oswald Chambers put it more than a century ago, “The surf that distresses the ordinary swimmer produces in the surf-rider the super joy of going clean through it.” There’s always another wave to ride.

My firm has done a lot of work in the health care industry with a wide variety of providers, from physician groups to hospitals to health plans. While the specifics of their mission statements differ, the thrust is always the same: to minimize human suffering. There is, of course, no way to prevent all suffering, and they’re well aware of that. But that doesn’t change their mission or keep them from getting up every morning and going to work. It’s what fuels them.

The same is true for every client we serve. No business plan is final. No corporate culture is fixed. No leadership team is permanent. No insights are definitive. And no solution is absolute. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try; it means we shouldn’t quit trying.

Over the past couple of decades, whenever I’ve been asked how my company is doing, I haven’t been sure how to answer. Looking back, I see how incredibly far we’ve come. Looking forward, I see how far we have to go. Both are true. I suppose that’s why I have always resisted setting concrete long-term objectives; if we achieve them, perhaps they were too easy. And if we don’t, we’ve somehow artificially fallen short.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t set short-term goals; If your mission is to deliver a truckload of goods across the country, success is measured by how long it takes you to get there. But if your vision is to experience the unexpected delights of the open road, you’ll never fully arrive (which is part of the appeal).

Long-term thinking is less about doing something than being something. It’s aspirational rather than achievable. In life and in business.

Never getting there is not something to be mourned but celebrated; it shouldn’t cause despair but offer hope. You’ll never get there, but you can get by, which in a competitive economy is never a small thing. You’ll never get there, but you can make progress, for yourself and for others. You’ll never get there, but you can get a lot done along the way, and enjoy the ride as you do.

That makes for a business well-run. And a life well lived.

 

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”
 
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