CXO

What got you here won't get you there

While past practices may have served you well, they may not be what it takes to get you to the next level.

If you were involved in the corporate world or business-related academia in the early 2000s, you probably read Jim Collins' seminal work Good to Great. For the unfamiliar, Collins cites extensive and painstaking research that allowed his team to identify 11 companies that made the leap from "good" to "great," and were provided as exemplary models for other executives to follow.

While the traits that Collins identifies as harbingers of greatness seem to have stood the test of time, the list of "great" companies most certainly has not. Circuit City no longer exists. Fannie Mae was bailed out by the Federal Government and fingered by many as a key player in the financial crisis of 2008. Wells Fargo has been mired in scandal, and others on the list like Pitney Bowes and Gillette would make few lists of "greats" less than two decades later. The causes of each particular company's struggles would surely fill several books, but one theme seems obvious: Greatness certainly is not permanent.

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Avoiding the great trap

Whether it's one of Collins' "great" companies, an athlete at the top of his or her game, or a high-performing IT shop, circumstances and competitors can quickly rewrite the rules of the game such that what made each entity great can be precisely the wrong tools to maintain greatness. A key asset or skill that took decades to build, nurture, and develop can be turned into a liability overnight, putting a leader in a terribly painful position of deciding to cast something aside in which they may have personally invested heavily.

That asset might even be as foundational as the culture that leader cultivated, a behavioral characteristic of that individual, a personal friend or colleague, or a system that's a source of pride and personal "sweat equity" to have implemented. These investments can easily blind us to how the market changes, or how our company requires a new way for us to perform. While we focus on maintaining what made us great, we miss the change in the environment that rewrites what's required to remain great.

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Watching the landscape vs. protecting the castle

Think of the assets and processes that you have created to achieve greatness as a metaphorical castle, each protecting your organization from whatever marauders or threats lurk outside the walls. These walls might seem to offer endless safety and security, and likely took years to build; however, if you focus solely on the walls you might miss the army marching towards your walls carrying tall ladders.

Achieving success can feel like arriving at a destination that provides some permanence and protection; however, that permanence is an illusion at best. A contributing factor to most organizations and leaders that fell from greatness was missing a key trend or change in the business landscape. While you may feel the primary purpose of your role is to build and maintain a function within the company, it's imperative that you watch the evolving landscape around you, doubly so if your organization has become successful.

Too often, success brings with it a sense that making even a minor change is a threat to that success, and therefore too risky. If you find yourself distant from current trends in technology, key strategic directions of your company, or what competitors and adjacent industries are doing, you may need to refocus on the broader landscape.

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Avoid complacency

It's easy to grow complacent when you're constantly told that your company, team, or organization are the best in class. When you find yourself hearing how wonderful your leadership, performance, and team are is when your hackles should raise, and you should closely study the external environment. Organizations and leaders at the top of their game constantly fight to stay there, and the moment you start to feel overly comfortable is the moment that you've either lost sight of where the broader industry or organization is headed, or that you're happily sailing off towards mediocrity. In either case, it's time for a change.

It's human nature to feel like you've arrived once your organization begins to experience consistent success, and you can remain in that blissful state forever. Unfortunately, the strategy, tactics, and people that got you there may not be able to sustain that state or help you grow to the next level of success.

Rather than taking time to relax, it's a time for retrospection, evaluation of your organization and the external environment, and thoughtful planning for what you need to expand upon and change in order to continue to succeed and grow.

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Image: g-stockstudio, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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