Success is a Lousy Teacher

What worked in the business world, writes Russ Linden, doesn't always work in the public sector.
January 2, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
By Russ Linden  |  Contributor
A management consultant, educator and author

Mary was not a successful city council member, which surprised many who knew her. She had been a successful engineer in a large company. She was smart, energetic, did her homework, and was always very straightforward in her views.

After she retired, she ran for city council and won. She purposefully made her priorities clear quickly, and set out to work on those issues. That's where things started to unravel.

Her corporate experience had taught her the value of being the first person to make a clear, strong proposal when working on a problem, so she simply announced her proposals at council meetings without first discussing them with her colleagues. That approach did not win her any support when it came time to vote. As an engineer, she had always studied a problem carefully, done her analysis, and then formulated a rational solution. But, on the council, she didn't take care to educate the public about what the problem was or why it needed to be addressed. Nor did she seek input from key stakeholders. Consequently, community groups that might otherwise have helped her -- but felt left out of the process -- often criticized her.

She fared no better with the media. Most council members would brief certain members of the press before making important announcements, to help the reporters understand their ideas and get good coverage of their speech. Mary was different; she believed that "good ideas speak for themselves."

After four frustrating years, Mary chose not to run for re-election. It was a loss for the community: she had so much to offer, but had been highly ineffective.

Like many people, Mary hadn't learned how things work in the political world. But, her larger problem had nothing to do with politics. The real issue for Mary, and for many managers, was this:

She assumed that the management style and tactics that had served her well in her former jobs would work as well in her new position.

The Problem: Yesterday's Successes Don't Necessarily Prepare Us for Tomorrow's Challenges.

The title of this column comes from a quote by Bill Gates, and he would know something about success. Actually, his full quote is even stronger: "Success is a lousy teacher; it seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose." 1

We saw a stark and tragic example of Gates' point during the Vietnam War. Robert McNamara, one of the smartest secretaries of defense in our lifetime, planned much of our Vietnam strategy. McNamara had been one of a group of 10 "whiz kids" during World War II -- a team responsible for organizing much of the operational and logistical information required to manage the war. The whiz kids all went to Ford Motor Company after the war, where they helped the company implement sophisticated management control systems in order to govern the company, keep costs in line and review strategic progress.

They helped Ford in many ways, but they were criticized for starting a trend of managing only by the numbers, and of making top management a closed environment, surrounded by an elitist staff, ignorant of the realities of operations and markets. Sadly, McNamara had taken the same approach to the Department of Defense, where he had drilled his cold, numbers-oriented approach down into the DoD bureaucracy. We saw some of the results during the Vietnam years, when senior generals would report the number of enemy soldiers killed each week while ignoring the realities on the ground: We weren't winning over the local population, nor were we winning the war.

McNamara, for all his brilliance, made the mistake that Mary made: He assumed that the approaches that helped him in the past were transferable to his new role.

What about You?

If past successes can blind us to what's needed in a new job or new situation, does that mean we can't learn from past experiences? Not at all. The key word here is "learn." Mary and Bob McNamara didn't reflect on their previous experiences when they took on new roles. They didn't ask if the new situation required what their previous experiences did; they didn't confer with others who had been successful in the jobs they were taking on; they didn't assess their skills and shortcomings to determine what changes they might need to make. Rather they automatically followed established patterns, and used the leadership approach that they knew so well. They didn't need to make wholesale changes, but they did need to make some changes. And, their past success blinded them to this need.

When you take on a new role or position, do you do such assessment? Do you:

o Ask your new colleagues what they need and expect of your role?

o Ask those whose judgment you trust to offer guidance on the most important things to do and to avoid doing?

o Assess your management style and determine what aspects will fit the new environment, and what must change?

o Find a small number of people who can give you their candid advice once you're on the job, who will tell you when you're headed in the wrong direction?

Success is a lousy teacher, as Bill Gates points out; but experience can be an excellent teacher if we ask the right questions.

1. Bill Gates, with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson. "The Road Ahead." New York: Viking, 1995.