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Clearly Define Success and Failure

Posted by: Rod Kurtz on September 29, 2009

Entrepreneurial leaders are often clearer than others about defining measures for success. Yet a definition of success alone falls short of illuminating the full spectrum of outcomes leaders must consider. In fact, it’s every bit as helpful to define what mediocrity and failure might look like. That way, you know the positive—and negative—boundaries of any venture.

As an executive coach, I’ve found that many CEOs do not really know if their enterprise or project is up, down, or sideways. Why? Because while they often set benchmarks for success, they rarely ask the right questions to establish what up, down, and sideways might look like.

I recently worked with a CEO who had added a new service to her business. She admitted it was facing stiff competition and the outcomes were far from assured. Although the service was launched 18 months before our first conversation about it and the results were unremarkable, she continued to be optimistic, believing that it should be a success. I asked a series of questions designed to help her develop specific, measurable endpoints for success, failure, and mediocrity. Initially she was taken aback by the questions around failure and mediocrity, and yet, by the end of several discussions, she realized that the service line was indeed already at a failure endpoint. It was time to cut her losses, which she did. She told me later that if she hadn’t considered those questions she’d still be holding out hope for a victory celebration.

When defining outcomes, I ask my clients many questions to help them be as specific as possible. I believe they know the answers, but it is still helpful because no one else is asking them to brainstorm about mediocrity and failure. What measurements will give us the clearest picture of performance? How will we know if we are headed in the direction of failure? Under what conditions might we defy dismal marks and press on? And so on.

I respectfully challenge leaders to ask themselves tough questions about the entire spectrum of measurable outcomes up front and, for extra credit, to do that in all future ventures before one dollar ever hits the P&L statement.

David Peck
Leadership Unleashed
Palm Springs, Calif.

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