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Being Successful Is One Thing; Staying That Way Is a Struggle

March 06, 2001|Gary Izumo | Gary Izumo is a professor in the Moorpark College business department and manages his own consulting practice. He is a former McKinsey & Co. consultant and practice leader for the Strategic Management Consulting Practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers. You can e-mail him at

Why is it so difficult for championship teams to repeat? Why is it hard for successful organizations to maintain their market leadership?

Why is success so hard to sustain?

Look at the St. Louis Rams, the defending Super Bowl champions who barely made the NFL playoffs last year and then were knocked out in the first round. Look at the struggles the Lakers are having in working as a team after becoming the NBA champions.

Or look at countless businesses, from General Motors to Baskin Robbins to IBM to Lucent Technologies, with dominant market positions that lost their leads.

Success and experience are good, but they can also create challenges.

Success can cause overconfidence, a focus on personal rather than team goals, or even arrogance. Some may think that if past patterns of technique and effort are followed, success will be replicated. And people can fall into the trap of "letting down," coasting, after success is achieved.

Clearly, success can be defined in a number of ways. However, success is not just a good day or a good week. And it's not just a single achievement.

Success, instead, is a progression of achievements over time.

But despite a history of success, people and organizations are evaluated on current performance. It's not necessarily what has been done in the past that counts. It is based more on what is being done now.

Here are some ideas on how you might avoid the pitfalls that make success difficult to sustain:

* Team, not individual, goals are key.

Success can lead employees to focus on personal instead of organizational goals. Past success does not mean entitlement to special treatment. Avoid the temptations of individual recognition and an attitude of entitlement. These temptations can destroy teamwork. The achievement of organizational goals is a result of team effort and not a reflection of one individual's contributions. We are stronger and achieve more as a team than individually.

* Keep doing your best.

It is not uncommon for complacency to follow achievement. Perhaps you have observed behavior that represents this attitude: "I want to enjoy our accomplishment. And besides, I work better when I am under pressure. So don't worry. I'll get going when I have to."

Ego can cause us to mistakenly believe the strength of our talent and experience will allow us to procrastinate, if not coast, and be able to pull off a great result in the end.

The intoxicating elixir of accomplishment can lead to the misconception that sustained outstanding effort is not necessary.

Instead of keeping the pressure on after experiencing success, we can observe people just getting by. Great work is replaced with good work. Outstanding effort and exceeding expectations is replaced by doing what is necessary to achieve a required target. But cruising doesn't cut it. This is a competitive world. Others out there want to be the market leader, to be successful. We need to always do our best and keep the pressure on ourselves rather than have the pressure put on us.

* Learning is essential.

Have you ever observed someone who achieved a terrific result but then, when faced with a similar challenge, approached it the same way with the same effort, only to find that the result fell short? We can always do better--but we can only take working harder to a certain extent.

Sustaining success requires learning--being open to new developments, taking risks and trying new approaches. Competition gears up to overtake the leader. Competitors will innovate and seek to exploit weaknesses. Yet it is all too common to hear someone who is shown a new technique say something like: "I've done this for six years. I know what I'm doing. I'm doing good work. Don't bother me." Sustaining success requires learning--working smarter rather than just harder.

* Pacing is vital.

The pursuit of success is better viewed as a marathon than a sprint. Success requires pacing. Organizational success is not measured by a single win, a particular result. Career success is measured by sustained achievement, by outstanding performance that is validated by the test of time. Understandably, accomplishing a particular result may take pushing the pace, making an extraordinary effort.

It is not uncommon for organizational and career success to necessitate periods of sacrifice. Yet we understand that in order to remain healthy, professionally and personally, pacing is vital. Organizations and careers suffer with burnout, illnesses and dysfunctional personal lives. Pacing and the never-ending quest for professional/personal balance is essential for success.


If we are to succeed, we must view success in a larger, more meaningful way and watch for the pitfalls that follow accomplishment. Let our achievements facilitate innovation rather than arrogance. Let us celebrate team accomplishments and use them to enlarge rather than limit potential. Let us remember that true success is a lifetime of professional and personal contributions.

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