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3 Success-Killers You'll Never See Coming

Think your company's success will never fade? Think again.
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Here's a hard fact I've observed over thirty years of working with world-class leaders: Your biggest strength ultimately becomes your most glaring weakness.

Joanne's ability to execute relentlessly turns her into a micromanager. Juan's an incredible Visionary, but it leads him to miss out on important small details. Miranda's stellar sales skills prevent her from seeing the importance of world-class delivery and service. Simon's energy, determination and persistence burn out everyone he works with.

We've already seen this dynamic at work on a personal level, but the same pattern occurs in organizations as a whole. Unless managed correctly, over time, the organization's greatest achievements sour into inescapable liabilities.

Here are the most common-- and most destructive-- examples I've observed:

1. The legacy business that holds growth hostage. Perhaps the most common way in which a great achievement becomes a liability is when the company has fought a long, expensive battle for industry prominence-- and won.

Often the price that has been paid for that victory in terms of time, resources and personnel is so high that everything that follows is distorted by its gravitational pull: A components manufacturer builds an unassailable position in the plastics industry, but can't (or won't) adapt to new materials because of the literal and psychic sunk cost in its old, legacy industry; A PR company 'owns' radio and print marketing but can't see the value in ephemera like social media; A major not-for-profit plugs away at the edges of a cause it long ago revolutionized, sunsetting all the while, ignoring other, more pressing issues it could readily transform.

Take a look at the core of your business-- ie the thing you do best. Is it still the beating heart of a vibrant, growing business, or the rotting head of a dying fish?

2. The single customer that distorts the entire business. Sure, it's great to get a large customer. Your industry's equivalent of Walmart or Apple comes a-knocking and before you know it, you've got massive orders, a lengthy pipeline, and predictable cash flow (even if the profits are tight).

You also get considerable bragging rights. At industry conferences, competitors look at you with envy. Your employees feel proud to see your product at outlets everywhere. You're a member of an elite club.

But back on the factory floor, or in office cubicles, your entire business is gradually being distorted. In the battle to remain competitive for this one mega-customer, you're losing your ability to compete in the market overall. Your production processes, your supply chain, your pricing structure--even the agenda of your management meetings--everything is slowly being sucked in to the gravitational pull of another entity.

Until one day, you no longer have control over your own destiny. You can no longer afford to lose this customer, because if you did, you'd have to essentially start all over again.

Take a look at your single largest sales success - has it brought you freedom? Or are you trapped?

3. The maverick-turned-jerk who pollutes the atmosphere and destroys your culture. Every growing business needs a big dog or two--hard-charging, get-it-done Operators who work every hour God sends (and then some) to build the success of the business in the early days.

But those big dogs can sour. As the business grows and becomes more complex, big dogs often bristle at being forced to comply with the systems and processes needed to scale. A little drunk on the autonomy they've built over the years--and often having built a massive amount of sweat equity with the business' founders--they become mavericks.

Condoned by nods and winks from a grateful owner, they get to ride roughshod over the processes everyone else has to comply with. Armed with a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card (usually a customer emergency, real or imagined) they are exempted attendance at meetings. Blessed with an informal, unspoken, but very real form of 'lifer' seniority, they feel free to ignore decisions they don't agree with. Insulated from discipline or consequence, they sneer at any attempts to build a culture that restricts their autonomy.

Take a long look at your biggest big dog. If they're teeing off everyone except you (and maybe, if you're honest, they're teeing you off, too), it's time to admit that your once greatest asset has become a maverick liability.

Don't let your company's biggest strength become its undoing, discover how to properly manage it instead. Download a free chapter from the author's WSJ best-seller, "Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization On the Growth Track - and Keeping It There" to learn more about building a world-class culture that will rapidly accelerate the growth of your business.

Last updated: Oct 31, 2013

LES MCKEOWN | Columnist

Les McKeown is the president and CEO of Predictable Success, a leading adviser on accelerated business growth. He has started more than 40 companies and was the founding partner of an incubation consulting company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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