The 7 Common Success Traps, Part 3: Measuring Success in the Wrong Way

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The “seven common success traps” are the traps I’ve learned about over the course of my career working with clients and collaborators from some of America’s top organizations, including Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies. These traps are based on both my personal experience and the stories shared by my clients and collaborators. 

These success traps can and do happen to the best of us. They can even destroy massively successful, well-established companies. It behooves us to understand what they are so that we can recognize when we’re in their vicinity and, if we can’t avoid them altogether, at least make it out alive.

That’s why I’ve written a book about these traps and why I’ll be exploring these seven traps on over the coming months. I hope that my books and articles will help companies overcome these traps — especially now, amid one of the most challenging economic climates we’ve ever seen.

Read the rest of the series:

Part one 
Part two 
Part four 

If you follow influencers like Simon Sinek, Tony Robbins, or Lewis Howes on social media, you probably at some point heard them talk about defining success for yourself. But how many of us also take the time to define success for our organizations?

In this article, I will address two problems I often see organizations run into when it comes to defining success. These two problems are deeply connected, with one often leading into the other, so understanding and avoiding both is crucial.

Problem No. 1: Defining Success Based on the Majority Opinion

This particular pothole on the road to success is very easy to fall into, and many organizations do at some point — even the best of the best!

In the information overload of the digital era, we’re constantly receiving messages about how we “should” be or what we “should” achieve. Whatever an organization’s leaders might believe, they’re often influenced heavily by society’s assumptions about what success is.

For example, many startup leaders are conditioned to believe that success means growing to the point where a major company buys them out. On the flip side, many larger corporations feel success means constantly getting bigger, expanding into new territories, and buying out other businesses.

The issue, in many cases, is that the company is only pursuing these goals because that’s what company leaders think they’re supposed to do. They haven’t actually taken the time to consider what success means for them personally. This is what organizational psychologist Dr. Scott Sonenshein calls “chasing.” 

On a related note, many company leaders seem to forget their company’s needs, vision, and direction are always evolving. What success was 10 or 20 years ago may not be what success is today. It’s important to keep revisiting your definition of success to ensure you’re not chasing an outdated version of it.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to grow your startup or expand into new markets. My point is that many company leaders don’t stop to consider whether they truly want these things or are just chasing them because they think they’re supposed to. It’s like the proverbial rock star who, upon achieving all the outward trappings of fame, realizes he’s still unfulfilled because it wasn’t really what he wanted.

As humans, we have all fallen victim to illusory visions of success. The biggest problem isn’t that this occurs; it’s that we don’t always realize we’re susceptible to the illusion. That’s why it’s so important to look within and define success for both your organization and yourself.

In the process of writing this article, I spoke with a human resources professional at a very long-standing, reputable manufacturing company about the concept of defining success. For her organization, success means recruiting quality staff members who remain with the company for a long time. Because of this, the organization spends a lot of time, energy, and money on developing employees and ensuring their satisfaction. The company regularly reviews and analyzes this measurement of success during leadership meetings, quarterly reviews, etc.

Another example of defining success differently comes from B Corporations, which measure their success based on how they impact employees, customers, communities, and the environment. Many major for-profit organizations, like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, have voluntarily chosen to get certified as B Corps, which means they are now publicly accountable to meet certain standards for making a positive social impact.

I’ve had the opportunity to interview many B Corp leaders in the US, as well as the board of the certifying company, B Lab. I can tell you the process of getting B-Corp certified is not easy, requiring time, dedication, and frequent recertification. The companies that do get certified really mean it when they say success involves more than just profit and growth for their companies.

Problem No. 2: Having a One-Dimensional Definition of Success

Business leaders and entrepreneurs often pursue a vision of success that’s too narrow and disconnected from the bigger picture.  A simple example would be a business measuring profit as its only metric of success, totally neglecting factors like efficiency, customer and employee satisfaction, and those social dimensions measured by B Corps.

A personal example might further illustrate how a one-dimensional vision of success can be detrimental to the healthy growth of an organization and its employees. Thinking back to times in my life when I was trying to lose weight, I sometimes became so obsessed with the goal of losing weight — with reaching a certain number on the scale — that the process itself became obsessive, restrictive, and downright miserable.

It usually didn’t start this way. I was often excited and motivated in the beginning, and it felt great to lose weight, have more energy, and move around more. But slowly, I would grow fixated on losing a certain amount of weight. I became so obsessed with the steps to lose weight that I lost sight of why I wanted to lose weight in the first place, and I forgot about all the benefits I could enjoy in the process of working toward my goal.

Why did this happen? The problem, in my opinion, was that both myself and my personal trainers were looking at the goal from a very one-dimensional perspective. Therefore, we were blind to all the wonderful things that could happen along the way. And paradoxically, we ended up making it harder for me to achieve long-term success, even in this one-dimensional view of success.

Now, my fitness goals are motivated by a very different view of success. I would rather lose 15 pounds in five months and enjoy the process than lose 40 pounds in the same time frame and be miserable. And if you were to talk to me 5, 10, or 15 years ago, I would have probably thought this idea was crazy. I would have seen losing less weight as a sign that I had failed — but that’s because I would have been too fixated on a very narrow vision of success. Today, I have actually taken the time to identify my personal values, and that’s why I am so clear about how I measure success.

Organizations may not need to lose weight, but they can end up in a very similar place, focusing on such a one-dimensional picture of success that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They forget why they even want to succeed in the first place.

If you and your employees are constantly feeling miserable, rigid, and obsessively focused on a single thing, you won’t even feel good if you’re able to reach your obsessive goal! And it’s not necessarily that the goal is bad. It might be a very worthwhile goal indeed. But it’s really important to be attentive to the process throughout. The journey should be as meaningful as the destination.

Ideally, you should know what’s most important to you before you start to execute. If your values are clear, you can use them as a compass throughout the process. It’s perfectly natural to get thrown off track along the way, but your values will help guide you back.

Finally, I would also recommend building some intangible goals into your vision of success, such as feeling satisfied, enjoying the work you’re doing, and building quality relationships with customers and employees. Not only will these kinds of goals give you more motivation to follow through, but you’ll also feel a heck of a lot better throughout the entire process.

Scott Engler is an internationally recognized branding thought leader and LinkedIn specialist. Connect with him on LinkedIn to learn more.

By Scott Engler