Defining Success (or how to gamble the right way)

I was watching Storage Wars the other night (don’t judge me) and one of the featured buyers/characters made the comment that the day was a bust because he didn’t get any of the lockers.  And it struck me that this person (“the gambler”) was looking at it from completely the wrong perspective.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the world of Storage Wars, a brief tutorial – when people don’t pay their fees on a storage locker for a certain amount of time, these lockers are considered abandoned and are offered up for auction.  The bidders are not allowed to enter the locker or touch any contents – they get about 2 minutes to look inside and make a snap decision about bidding.

As you might have guessed, not all of these storage units are “winners”.  Units that look like they are full of high quality boxes have been known to be filled with old newspapers.  Occasionally there is a gem found among the lockers (old baseball cards, jewelry, rare books), but more often than not the bidders may only make $100 or even lose money on the deal.

gamblingwiththedevilSo, back to “the gambler’s” comment that bothered me so much.   Like most businesses, the storage racket would appear to live by the “buy low – sell high” philosophy, only in this situation, the buying is a very chancy proposition, indeed.  In that particular episode, a number of the lockers went for $2,000+ – pretty tight margins for someone who relies on buying other people’s abandoned stuff.  So wouldn’t you think that you might define success as making smart buying decisions and knowing when to NOT buy something?

A lot of leaders think like “the gambler” (and yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to be singing the song to yourself at this point).  They define success as having a finished product, whether it’s a PowerPoint deck, software roll out, or a company-wide reorg – even if one of these is a bad idea.  Or they define success as “winning” a conversation, shouting down the whole room and having the last word – even if it means abandoning the game plan.  Sometimes success means NOT taking action – but you wouldn’t know that if you haven’t taken the time to think about it.

Leadership is a bit of a gamble at times.  You don’t always know how your decisions will turn out.   Good analysis may suggest a course of action, but then you find out the data was inaccurate.  Depending on your hiring process, those candidates may look like a promising storage unit that you bid on, only to find out the fancy storage trunk hid a bunch of mold.  We stay in it, though, for that occasional hidden treasure that experience and research tells us should be a good bet.  The key is defining success the right way and sticking to it.  A few thoughts:

  • If you’re gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right: Have you REALLY defined what success looks like, or are you relying on a flash of insight, a vague pie chart, or a dream you had last night?  Do your homework, conduct some analysis, and define what success means…and stick to it!
  • You gotta know when to hold ‘em: Sometimes things start as clunkers (employees, projects, lunch plans).  But if your plan is sound and you keep the long-term goal in mind (success!), it’s worth waiting it out a little bit.  Don’t give up because you hit one road block.
  • Know when to fold ‘em: Conversely, don’t keep throwing good money after bad.  This really is gambling and typically doesn’t end well for anyone. (Click here for a recent post about knowing when to pull the plug).
  • Never count your money when you’re sitting at the table: Okay, I really just wanted to use all the lyrics, but hear me out.  Don’t assume you’re a success just because you had a good week, just as you shouldn’t assume you failed because you had a bad day.  Stick to the plan and remember your definition of success.  Wait until all the cards on the table before declaring something was a waste of time.

Listen, if everything was a sure bet, it wouldn’t be any fun.  Just be careful that you don’t substitute smart thinking with chasing the “gambler’s high”, remembering that ONE time that your gut was right.  Whether you’re a CEO, an entry-level analyst, or a dude who makes money buying abandoned storage units, your long term prosperity and general well-being relies on your ability to define success in a way that’s right for the business…and remembering it in times of frustration.

And THAT’S an ace that you can keep*.

*With apologies to Kenny Rogers

Ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
‘Cause ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.

Knowing when to pull the plug (or why you make the big bucks)

It’s a moment that most leaders have faced.  That enterprise-wide solution that you’ve been working on for 2 months and is three weeks away from implementation – the one that you championed for months, shouting down anyone who dared to disagree…and did you seriously just hear yourself say ‘I’d stake my reputation on it’ – is NOT the right solution.  Not even close.  In fact, it’s probably going to break the internet.  And the worst part?  You knew it 2 weeks into the project.

So what do you do?

Well, if you’re like most people, there’s a good chance that you just put your head down, rally the troops, and limp it over the finish line.  Heck, it might work.  Glass half full.  Power of positive thinking!  The Secret wouldn’t have been a top seller unless it really worked – right?  Besides, if you pull out now, it would be like a slap in the face to all those team members who worked their hearts out to meet the deadlines and somehow kludge the “solution” into the existing infrastructure, and that’s just unfair….

Okay.  Hold it right there.  If this has ever been your thinking, you just fell into the “sunk cost” trap (awesomely laid out by the Freakonomics folks in this 2011 post on the upside of quitting).  Maybe you could afford to base your decisions on sunk cost when you were a bright-eyed entry-level analyst, but as a leader you just can’t think that way.  It’s why you make the big bucks – you have to make the decisions that may feel icky in the short term, but are the CORRECT ones for the company.

Falling in love with your plan is a real risk for a leader and incredibly easy to do.  Chances are you were made a leader because you have great ideas and have a track record for bringing solutions to the table.  Hey, I get it.  Pulling the plug on an idea that you’ve incubated can feel like a failure – you seriously question the reason why you had the idea in the first place.  Or worse – you feel like you’re personally attacking one of your employees who was brave enough to suggest the idea in the first place.  But I would argue that your ability to pull the plug on a project or idea that isn’t right and/or won’t be successful long-term is one of the greatest skills a leader can have.  It saves time, money, good faith, reputation, sanity – you name it.


So how do you get your mind around the fact that as a leader it’s OKAY to pull the plug on a doomed project?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Runaway bride: Think of the project as a marriage.  Are you falling in love with the wedding without thinking about the fact that the two of you don’t really have anything in common?  If your answer is “maybe”, think about what the divorce might be like.  How hard is is to undo the project once it’s launched?  Chances are, pulling the plug now will be a lot less painful than trying to un-implement PeopleSoft  (not that there’s anything wrong with PeopleSoft – please don’t sue).
  • Outsider’s view: Take a step back and look at your project as an outsider would see it.  Or even better – look at it as though the project was being sponsored by your arch nemesis and start poking holes in it.  If you’re able to rattle off 5 reasons it won’t work within 10 seconds, guess what – it won’t work.  Now you can feel better about ending the project immediately.  Yay, you!
  • Trust the team: I have been lucky enough to manage some really amazing people in my career.  They were smart, creative, hard working…and nice enough to speak up when they thought I was doing something really, really stupid.  It took a little while for me to learn to listen to them, but I did.  And as a result, I felt okay abandoning my ideas when they weren’t the right ones.  Even better, the team built a culture where anyone could recommend pulling the plug and starting over so feelings weren’t hurt and precious time and resources were redirected to the right things.
  • Think of it as becoming more disciplined: It’s like eating vegetables – it’s good for you. Jim Collins wrote this article about the importance of a stop doing list.  If one of the most successful business authors can learn the importance of pulling the plug, surely you can do it, too.
  • Make it quick: Okay, so you admit it won’t work.  Cut it off NOW.  No prolonged battles, no questioning what the project’s real wishes were, no waiting around to see if maybe it’ll work next quarter.  Say your good-byes and pull the plug and let everyone move on to the next idea.
  • Get over it: So your idea didn’t work.  Boo hoo.  You’ll have another one.  Oh, is that a little harsh?  Sorry.  But seriously.  Get over it.

As a leader, your ability to think critically, logically, and systemically can make or break your company’s success.  That responsibility far outweighs any one project.

With great power comes great responsibility.
– Uncle Ben

Have some tips on how you pull the plug with dignity?  Share in the Comments.