Ann Marie Sastry has a big idea. With over 70 patents and 80 scientific publications to her credit, she describes herself as a “happy warrior who’s driven by doing the next new thing.” That drive leads her to put in 100 hour work weeks and spend over two decades in pursuit of developing new battery technology application for use in electric vehicles. She’s scrapped the traditional chemical lithium technology to rethink the basics of energy, power, mass, volume, cost and safety, all in search of a new approach. She’s also raised $30 million from a variety of backers in support of her grand idea.
Sastry has an entrepreneurial zeal for her product that compels her to pursue any and every approach and perspective to accomplish her goal. She has a passion and optimism for success that propels her forward, and expects that within a year or two her product will be in full production. But for every successful entrepreneur, there are many more whose dreams never turn into reality. That’s because the same passion that propels her forward with a clear focus on success, can be blinding to others and cause them to miss the obvious cues that unfortunately their grand idea won’t get off the ground.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal on How an Entrepreneur’s Zeal Can Destroy a Startup by Noam Wasserman provides perspective on the negative effects of such passion. It’s displayed in the many mistakes founders make in starting their business including lack of technical or scientific experience, management experience, and connections with investors and potential customers. They significantly underestimate the time and resources needed to get the business running, and the toll it will take on their family relationships.
Interestingly, one study showed that when 800 founders’ startup ideas were assessed and given feedback on the feasibility and next steps of their business, of those who received a recommendation that their ideas wasn’t commercially viable, 29% continued to invest money, and 51% continued to invest time in developing their ideas. The obvious question at this point is why someone would continue to pursue a venture when they’re highly unlikely to succeed. The authors suggest that these individuals had overwhelming optimism in their potential for success, coupled with a reluctance to give up after already investing so much time and money. In short, they were blinded by their passion.
Founders are often driven by a desire to make a mark in their world. They believe that their idea will play an important role in their environment or society, and feel compelled to pursue it. Their passion becomes the focal point of their thought process as they guide their lives to accomplish their dream. Passion managed appropriately can have a positive impact; while unchecked and unbalanced passion may lead to negative behaviors and consequences. Passion for an initiative can open one’s eyes to new possibilities, but it can also blind one to the potential difficulties of pursuing it. Passion can drive entrepreneurs to sacrifice the presumed comfort of a steady paycheck to pursue their business startups, but it can also put their finances, families and future at risk.
Thus, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. So how do know if your passion is out of balance?
• Do you have the support of your family? Or are you sacrificing too much time with your family to pursue your passion? Is your significant other supportive, or asking you to redirect your time and energy? Many entrepreneurs fail to be honest with themselves and their loved ones about the commitment required to pursue their dream.
• Do you have the resources to support it? Do you have sufficient finances for your personal living expenses? Are you draining your retirement savings? How are you funding this venture, and how much are you willing to invest and borrow to determine if it has a chance of success?
• Does it help build positive relationships? Or, do your friends and colleagues avoid you because this is the only thing you talk about? Engaging in conversations on a variety of topics with individuals from various backgrounds can serve as a creative catalyst, versus being singularly focused on your project.
• Do you have the skillset to accomplish it? Or are you able to gather others around you with the right skillset to support your efforts? Too many entrepreneurs try to do it all when in reality they need to surround themselves with a people who possess a variety of skillsets and needs that will evolve over time.
• Does it meet a need, fill a void, or satisfy a desire in the marketplace? What may seem like a wonderful idea to you, may lack sufficient value to others. Are people really willing to invest in it or pay for it?
If you responded “no” to any of these primary questions, this is the time to think carefully about what you’re doing and find a way to balance your passion. This is the time to make sure your zeal is not overshadowing reality, and focus on initiatives where you CAN be successful, where you CAN fulfill your responsibilities to family and friends, where your talents CAN be most valued.
Never give up on your passion. Simply maximize it and apply it where it will be most beneficial. Whether your passion is focused on an entrepreneurial venture, a great new idea for a process or product within your organization, a pastime or hobby, or a business initiative, balance is the key.
The applause was deafening. The congratulations overwhelmed your email box. The press clippings were glowing. Everyone was buzzing, because your recent product launch was successful. Last quarter’s earnings beat even the analysts’ predictions. The company’s stock price was up 15%. Operating costs were down, and sales volumes were number one in the industry.
So how do you follow that act? All of this excitement doesn’t build a platform upon which to rest. Instead it forms a bar, higher than the last one, over which you must hurdle. After all, the stockholders expect more earnings. Customers expect better products. Employees expect more career opportunity. And so it goes. How do you manage all of these expectations for continuous improvement against the best strategy for the company’s growth? How do you compete for market dominance without succumbing to market vulnerabilities?
This is the pivotal point. The choices you make will become either a stepping stone to greater success, or the rock that trips up your company, your team, or your own leadership success. Companies and people don’t automatically enter a “safe” zone when they reach a measure of accomplishment. But in some cases, their behavior suggests that they think their momentum can’t be stopped.
You’ve heard the saying, “the higher you climb, the harder you fall.” While that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, in the midst of success, it’s important to remain grounded; like holding onto a guardrail.
Jim Collins, author of the best-selling books Good to Great and Built to Last, provides an explanation on how once-mighty companies fall. He highlights five stages in his book How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In.
- Hubris born of success. Here an organization or team exhibits extreme pride and arrogance based on past accomplishments.
- Undisciplined pursuit of more. Companies in this stage overreach, become obsessed with growth, and fail to manage the process and pace effectively, ultimately undermining their long-term value.
- Denial of risk and peril. By this stage, companies are so caught up in successes that they become blind to the possibilities of failure.
- Grasping for salvation. This is the moment where the company’s decisions lead to new life or certain death.
- Capitulation to irrelevance or death. At this point organizations are spiraling out of control and either give in to certain death, or shrink into irrelevance.
So how does one avoid this death spiral, whether within your team, your organization or for your own leadership abilities? Here are a few tips from my playbook.
- Build a culture of humility. Keep the focus on the value you provide to your customers; and the “why” of your organization. What’s the impact if you cease to exist? It’s really not all about your company. It’s about the value you provide to others. This is a giving mentality, where long term relationships, integrity and quality products or services are most important; instead of a getting mentality, where there’s constant pressure on the customer to buy.
- Find your truth teller. Unfortunately, some leaders surround themselves with other leaders who will tell them what they want to hear. Or they don’t create a culture where their team feels comfortable fully informing them about business issues. Make sure you surround yourself with people who are encouraged and willing to speak up and say the difficult things or raise questions that may be contrary to the prevailing direction.
- Strike your balance. If you try to be all things to all customers; if you overreach in too many different directions, you lose your balance and end up grasping for a lifeline. A tightrope walker is constantly shifting his weight to keep his center of mass above his feet. This alignment is critical in your organization or team to ensure stability between competing priorities.
- Exhibit learning leadership. Only when the leader of the team demonstrates a continual desire to learn, to admit faults and deficiencies, and to seek input from the entire team and others outside the company, will others in the organization follow suit.
- Master discipline. Establish a system that produces results, and keep repeating it. Measure the right factors. Ensure team members are learning agile and will support the culture. Focus on a consistent vision. Stick to what works.
Note that these recommendations have nothing to do with functional or technical skills. You can hire individuals on your team to fulfill those roles. This has everything to do with pure leadership; influencing others to move forward in the right direction, based on the right decisions. These are important steps in building a “mighty” organization. So, are you a “mighty” leader?
A portfolio is generally understood as a collection of valuables; whether artistic drawings, important papers, or financial investments. It reflects the talents and treasures of the owner, and is generally carefully cultivated and added to over a period of time. But to increase the treasures in your portfolio, you must first focus on increasing your talents.
A recent issue of Forbes Magazine featured The Best Investment Advice of All Time, which profiled insider tips from some of the financial industry’s best known thought leaders. These were financial gurus such as T. Rowe Price, Jr., George Soros, Sir John Templeton, David Tepper, Sam Zell and Warren Buffett who built their professional expertise and personal portfolios based on their intellect and abilities. They had to invest in their talent before building their treasure.
These talents or skillsets include knowledge, wisdom, abilities, experiences and interests. And most of all they include your innate gifts, those characteristics endowed upon you from birth that attract you and compel your learning decisions. Properly applied they develop and produce treasures.
Your Talents Form A Foundation For Your Treasures
Building and investing in a portfolio of talents is equally important as your portfolio of treasures. Here are several great examples.
Several decades ago when Jeff Maggioncalda was newly married, he created a simulation engine to model the results of one million Monopoly games to generate the probabilities and payoffs for its various properties, and used this as a cheat sheet to beat his wife at the game. Later, Jeff used his ability to develop simulations to found Financial Engines, a company which provides financial advice to almost 800,000 employees at 553 large employers. Because Jeff invested in himself first he was able to transform his ideas and skills into a lucrative business, and build his portfolio.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is the world’s highest paid athlete with $105 million earned in the boxing ring over the past year. According to Wikipedia, he is currently undefeated as a professional and is a five-division world champion, having won ten world titles and the lineal championship in four different weight classes. His father, a boxer and trainer, started taking him to the gym as soon as he could walk, and fitted him for his first pair of boxing gloves at the age of seven. Floyd developed his skill by investing years of practice in the gym, but it was fueled by an innate love for the sport. This propelled him to his current position atop the list of highest paid athletes, with a portfolio to match.
Sarah Ketterer was born into the investment world. Her father, John Hotchkis, founded several successful asset management companies where she worked during the summers; but she didn’t initially pursue a career there. After several educational and professional shifts, Sarah eventually became interested in understanding and organizing the data used to make investment decisions, and joined her father’s firm to start a new international equity arm. From there, she and a partner developed a new model of money management, and in 2001 started their own international asset management business. Their unique approach which combines quantitative computer program probability predictions with fundamental analysis of stocks has paid off, and in the past 18 months their assets have more than doubled to $33 billion.
Leave a Legacy
The typical result of building a successful portfolio of treasures is to bestow it upon your heirs, or to donate it to a worthy cause. Some have amassed family fortunes in a trust for generations to come. Others have joined Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. Whether your portfolio is valued at $10,000 or $10 million or $10 billion, if properly managed its value may outlive you.
Similarly, a successful portfolio of talents can add value to others and provide benefits for those around you and for future generations. Inventors and innovators like Steve Jobs, George Washington Carver, and Thomas Edison have proven this already.
So what’s in your portfolio of talents, and how will that transfer to your portfolio of treasures? What assets do you have in terms of your skillsets, abilities, interests, and experiences? Whether you’re just holding a job, or in the midst of a successful career, it’s important to hone in on those elements upon which your success has been or can be built. Doing so will not only drive the right decisions to maximize your future personal development and professional career choices, but will enable you to provide lasting benefit to others in their growth and development.
Copyright 2014 Priscilla Archangel
Read Forbes Magazine’s June 30, 2014 issue for more information on Maggioncalda, Mayweather and Ketterer. Learn more about Mayweather’s early years here.