Success - Have the Rules Changed or Have You?

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2005

For many executives, the view from the top isn't quite what they expected.

So begins the article by Sheree Curry in the most recent issue of Executive Travel magazine, an American Express publication. I was interviewed at length for this article and she did such a good job that I'm reprinting it below because I think it is a topic worth exploring especially given the current press about business scandals. I hope you find it stimulating and encouraging.

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In your late 20s or early 30s, you were a rising star in corporate America with dreams of one day running a company yourself.

You brought innovative ideas to the table to impress your superiors, so that you were on the tip of their tongues when raises and bonuses were doled out.

After all, that higher salary helped pay the bills for your country club, where you talked a good game - um, played a good game - of racquetball or golf to expand your networking circle.

You jetted across the U.S. and world to meet with clients on a moment's notice, in hopes of being tapped as a major division head.

Sure, you needed a grander income to purchase a minivan or SUV to carpool your kids to Little League and dance practice.

Little Susie needed braces, and you needed to contribute to Junior's college fund. You needed a larger house to entertain clients, as well as accommodate the new baby you weren't expecting.

And, of course, there was that loan to pay off for the MBA or other advanced degree that helped you command respect as you climbed yet another rung closer to the ladder's peak.

You clawed, sweated blood, kissed feet. By your late 30s or early 40s, you had arrived. That six-figure salary, corner office, stock options - they were all for your family, right?

Wrong.

The success you achieved was all for you. Sure, your family benefited, and on some level, so did friends and coworkers. But no matter how many times you stood up and toasted your stellar team or supportive spouse, deep down, you knew that era in your life was about "me, me, me."

Achieving success stems from a human desire to impress. We want to prove to our significant other, coworkers and children that we can become senior VP or president. "Yes, our egos get in the way," says Stephen Shapiro, founder of Quincy, Mass. - based research organization The 24/7 Innovation Group. "The motivation for success is societal. Most people suffer from a bad case of 'affluenza'; they want, or need, to fit in with society. To keep up with the Joneses."

In 24/7 Innovation's "Are you a Goalaholic?" survey, 50 percent of respondents said they sometimes get the feeling they are living their lives in a way that satisfies others more than it satisfies themselves. Even so, once many have attained a monetary or traditional level of success, they still aren't entirely happy. Nearly 75 percent of the people who said they were successful still felt something was missing from their lives, the survey revealed. And on a scale of 1 to 10, they rated their lives a 5.4. "Why? Because a goal, once achieved, no longer motivates, leaving us adrift and dissatisfied," says Shapiro.

As a result, we start to define success differently, by intangibles. "We are no longer dependent upon others to continually validate our feelings of success," says San Francisco - based executive coach Susyn Reeve, author of "Choose Peace and Happiness." "The new definition of success is about being aligned with our values. There's a focus on spirituality and service," she says. Our goals shift from being "me-centric" to "other-centric."

When we reach our late 40s, 50s and 60s, success is not about shareholder value or our value. It is about giving back to the community. It could be in the form of establishing a company wellness program, setting a policy of time off with pay, giving employees incentives to help a nonprofit, taking a vacation in an impoverished area or simply participating in community service projects with our children.

In fact, 65 percent of executives - mostly CEOs - surveyed in winter 2003 by Advanced Leadership Consulting said that as they have become more successful and less concerned about proving themselves, they have also become more concerned with their legacy - providing value to the community, or leaving behind a lasting impression of having high social values.

"These findings are in stark contrast to the media perception that businesspeople are simply interested in making money," says Seattle-based executive coach and psychologist Carl Robinson, Ph.D., a principal at Advanced Leadership Consulting. "I encounter executives who say, 'I want to leave a legacy where people will want to remember me not just for being successful and because I built a big company, but because I had a business that treated people with respect and wanted to be affiliated with."

Case in point: Bob Bingham. At the age of 25, he was a successful general manager of a Seattle radio station. And he built a career in station management over the years. "I ended up owning 11 stations in the Seattle area, Salt Lake City, Anchorage and Fairbanks," he says.

Bingham decided to make a midlife career change in 1994, when a good friend asked him to become president of a company he built into a franchise two years before: The Little Gym International. "I had heard of the company years before and had actually recommended to this friend then that he make an investment in it," says Bingham.

Bingham and his wife had enrolled their son, Alex, in a Little Gym class back when Bingham was still managing the Seattle station, and the developmental gymnastics school was a local startup. He says, "My wife and I were huge advocates of the program just as parents, and we had told our friends about it."

Today, as president-CEO of Scottsdale, Ariz. - based The Little Gym International, Bingham, 58, says, "At 30, I measured success purely in dollars and cents. I was much more ego-driven and much more selfish. In one way, I thought I was successful. And I was enjoying it. But when I reached that juncture in my life, it was not a success that completely fulfilled me. Now I will be able to look back and say I did something more than just make money."

According to Carl Robinson, as people grow older, they have a desire to be involved in a business that has value in the community. "It is like a light switch goes on. As you mature psychologically, you tend to become more other-focused, because you are no longer operating on a survival level. You know you are going to be successful no matter what you do, and so you begin to think about bigger issues: the world, the environment, community, legacy. It is a natural evolutionary process. You wake up and start to realize you want to do something for the community."

Nick Vojnovic, 45, who has a long track record in the franchise restaurant business, recently made the leap into that "giving back" frame of mind. He says, "When I was 20 and 30, I was career-focused and salary-focused. There is no doubt when you set your goals, it is a very difficult road to get there, and when you get there, it is a lot harder than you thought. You travel a lot, you're away from your family a lot and sometimes you miss significant events at home."

Vojnovic rose through the management ranks at Chili's, Applebee's and Famous Dave's, but didn't feel as fulfilled as he later did in the post of vice president of franchise sales and operations at little-known Beef O'Brady's Family Sports Pub. He helped the restaurant grow from 30 to 151 stores. "The concept is not real flashy," he says. "It's just a neighborhood pub. The whole community meets there. There are little leaguers and grandparents. It is more of a heart appeal."

Beef O'Brady's, founded in 1985 by Jim Mellody, requires all of its franchise partners to be involved in the community by working with local schools, athletics clubs and community organizations. On any given Monday, 50 stores have fundraisers for the local schools. Some Tampa-area units host "Beef O'Brady's High School Scoreboard Show," a weekly TV program covering high school athletics. "At Chili's, community service was not part of the plan. It was discouraged," says Vojnovic, who adds that Chili's is still a fine company in many other respects.

It is Beef O'Brady's commitment to community, along with Vojnovic's ability to be part of that giving back, that helps the executive to appreciate and understand success. "Beef is about helping other people achieve their dreams," says Vojnovic, who now serves as the pub's president and chief operating officer. "Twenty years ago, I had no clue. I wouldn't have appreciated that part of it."

Although we begin to define success differently as we grow older and our needs and goals change, society also plays a part in the changing definition of success. Historically, whenever there are major political, economic or environmental upheavals, people stop and reconsider how they are living. And it seems that this commitment to community and having a balanced life has become a priority for younger and younger people over the past few decades.

"The organizational man from the 1950s is changing out of disillusionment...in part, because you have new generations coming out of the workforce who didn't have the same cultural upbringing as their grandparents. During the Depression, financial security was important to them. Those working during the Cold War had a different outlook. Today, the kind of security one has is different. You don't have a job for life," says John Lazar, cofounder and editor of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations (Deerfield, Ill.).

Robinson agrees. "With the crash of the Internet bubble and 9/11, the fragility and illusions of success as defined in strictly business terms were made much more apparent. Business as usual came to a psychological halt. As a result, many senior executives were compelled to look inward and question how they were living. The upshot is that successful people have begun to look outward and think about their impact on the world at large. They are thinking globally, rather than just about 'me.'"