What is a Measure of Success?

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

“Life is too short to spend valuable energy chasing after objective success measures that don’t affect your subjective bottom line. Just as you’d do on the job, make your professional and personal “wins” clear, meaningful, and achievable to ensure the maximum emotional return on your investment of effort,” is something I read on the internet. I think it might have come from a drop-down menu, but wherever it came from, it makes me wonder not just about why it sticks and the truth of the statement.

For a while now, I’ve been occupied with thoughts about what success means. Is it material? Is it immaterial? How is it measured subjectively? Objectively? Does its measurement even matter? Or is it something that a collective society tells us should matter?

A measure of success is a standard by which a person or entity assesses whether or not they’ve achieved their goals, right? There’s no single true measure of success, and successful people use a variety of benchmarks to evaluate their personal and professional achievements.

As I’m reading “The Man Who Broke Capitalism” by David Gelles, I’m still confounded about the American exportation of “success fundamentals” as crafted by Jack Welch. It’s as if one man turned the world upside down. It was the excess of wealth. It was wealth for wealth's sake. Suppose you were working during the Great Recession, coming out of school and into the workforce, or losing your home due to the global economic collapse. In that case, it might have made the realities of this winner-take-all capitalism seem devoid of value. So much hurt. So much uncertainty. So much misery. All for what?

While some measures of success are more common than others, all are at least somewhat subjective or relative. For example, even the highest-earning businesses might have excessive employee turnover, overworked executives, and stifling company culture. Some might characterize such a business as a success (due to its high earning potential) while others may say it doesn’t meet their personal measure of success (due to its inability to foster a positive work environment).

Maybe these definitions simply don’t work or take account of all the answers. Maybe there are slight divergences at the confluence of all these streams of thought. Maybe thoughts that once went unexamined need a more strenuous examination.

Qualitative Success, Anyone?

Take, for instance, measuring success qualitatively; instead of focusing on the financial wealth of success, it’s possible to consider factors other than hard numbers when deciding whether you or your company has achieved success.

For instance, has the company you work for or the work that you do generate some intangible form of customer satisfaction? Generating a positive customer experience is a sign your company is working toward success, right? Any successful company, by necessity, has a satisfied customer base that will regularly buy its goods and services because of the enjoyment created.

And then again, there might be a sense of pride or personal satisfaction in what you deliver. Whether you’re a business leader or just showed up for your day of hard work as an employee, measuring how you feel about your success can provide a good barometer of how you feel about the success of your company overall. If everyone (or nearly everyone) at a company feels successful, it’s a good sign the company as a whole is successful, too.

But what about the quantitative, ever incessant needs for quantitative success?

Does Quantitative Success Fuel Our Narrative?

I feel like so much of what’s been communicated or passed down to me through the rigors of American culture, or American Capitalism is how we If you want to use concrete metrics to help you define your achievements, try using measures that rely on hard data.

Is determining how much of the market your business has a share of to measure its success?

Or… are numbers accurate?

Every day, at almost every company, strategy is being hijacked by numbers. Because strategy is abstract, employees often mentally replace it with the hard metrics meant to assess whether the organization is succeeding at it. This tendency is called surrogation, and it destroys a lot of value. Take Wells Fargo. Executives there decided to track cross-sales to customers to measure performance on the bank’s strategy of building long-term customer relationships. The focus on cross-selling goals led employees to open 3.5 million accounts without customer consent, which, with brutal irony, severely damaged the long-term relationships the bank sought.

Though it’s easy to fall into the surrogacy snare, firms can take steps to avoid it. For instance, they can involve the people who’ll implement a strategy in its formulation, so they’ll be more likely to grasp it and less likely to replace it with a metric. Tying financial incentives to a metric is usually a mistake: It only increases the focus on the numbers. Using multiple yardsticks is very helpful; however, that highlights that no single metric captures the strategy and makes people less apt to close.

Tying performance metrics to strategy has become an accepted best practice over the past few decades.

Strategy is abstract by definition, but metrics give strategy form, allowing our minds to grasp it more readily. With metrics, Ford Motor Company’s one-time strategy “Quality is job one” could be translated into Six Sigma performance standards. Apple’s “Think different” and Samsung’s “Create the future” could be linked to the number of sales from new products. If the strategy is the blueprint for building an organization, metrics are the concrete, wood, drywall, and bricks.

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Brian Fink

Executive Recruiter. ✈ #ATL ↔ #SF ✈ Building companies is my favorite. Opinions are my own. Responsibility is freedom. 🖖