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02 NOVEMBER 2015
The real secret to business success

by Mike Stopforth: Entrepreneur and investor. Sometimes writer and speaker. Exploring how we lead, and how we should lead, in an increasingly complex world.

It’s better to be safe than sorry, right? But, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

You should never judge a book by its cover. But clothes make the man (or woman)?

Winners never quit. But you should also quit while you’re ahead.

The English language is peppered with contradictory idioms. Almost every go-to adage has a rational, sensible comeback. I read a fair amount of business books, many of which tout the very latest in ground-breaking business thinking based on a block of research, insight or even an idea in a blog post, much of which is very valuable. Then, a month or two later I read another very well-researched, well-written body of work that completely debunks that thinking. What gives?

PayPal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel recently published Zero To One (a book I really enjoyed and regularly recommend to others) in which he debunked Eric Ries’s equally popular Lean Startup. Both make great cases. I’d argue both are right. The truth is, despite what publishers and bloggers want you to believe, there is no secret to business success. There is no one book, one talk, one slideshow or one strategic model that guarantees success. The sad thing is many of the aspirational young entrepreneurs and start-ups I meet with are looking for that one secret – that magical shortcut.

The only thing I know for sure is that most businesses are primarily about people. The people you work with and the customers you sell to. It’s a scientific fact that no two people are alike. It follows that if business is about people, and no two people are alike, that it’s highly unlikely that any two businesses will experience identical paths to success (or failure, as it were).

So what is the real secret to business success? I think it’s realising there is no secret. It’s realising that you have to find your own path and own way. That the likelihood of you duplicating someone else’s success by replicating their leadership or innovation style is highly unlikely.

How do you find your own way? I have three thoughts:

1. A variety of input

While I am instantly skeptical of anything that claims to be the single answer or solution to business success, I do think a variety of inputs, reflections and insights into business is always useful. I try to surround myself with books, podcasts, and most importantly people, that know a lot about industries and business models I know nothing about. Their perspective is invaluable.

2. Knowing why you’re in it

Business ownership and leadership can be tough, and it is almost always lonely. The perks are incredible, but the risks are gut-wrenching. Some business books will tell you to drive for profit and perfect execution. Others, culture and good vibes. I don’t care what you’re doing it for (that’s your indaba), but I see a remarkably high proportion of business owners having no clue themselves. They are driven by circumstances instead of values. If you are in it for money, no problem, just know that. If you’re in it for legacy and hugs, no problem, know that too. Just don’t flit between three different reasons in three months – you’ll exhaust yourself.

3. Consistency in execution

Regardless of whether you’re running a drug cartel or a cancer research project, consistency is imperative. Consistency doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over again. It means that your approach to execution, as a leader and founder, is relatively consistent. You can change your entire business model, but the way you deploy the change and move people to action must be consistent. You can’t be the dictator one day and the servant the next.

Cerebra is an integrated strategic communication agency that builds, engages and activates communities around brands. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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