Lessons from the road — skipping the success trap

This column originally appeared in Bangkok’s The Nation newspaper in January 2015.

One of the first things business students learn is the danger of becoming too successful. When a business is on top, the number-one brand, the biggest earner in its market, it’s no secret that it’s in a highly precarious position. It has nowhere to go but down.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Bangladesh on one of my regular visits to the market and to meet with the board at our operations there. And every time I visit, I am inspired by the fire and passion still in all of our people’s eyes. Seventeen years and 50+ million customers later, they are still ambitious, still hungry.

And yet, they lead their market — by a wide margin. How have they stayed there? What have they been doing right that too many other companies, regardless of industry or nation, get wrong when they reach the top of their game?

Think like a startup

The first is that our Bangladesh business is granular in its approach — to an almost microscopic degree. They know what is happening in their market, in customer groups and even with individual customers. They examine their sales numbers, their promotions and shifting market demands, and they do this every day.

It’s unfortunate but true: successful companies begin to remove themselves from this. They start looking at averages and monthly figures, rather than examining daily dips or climbs. So it’s on this first point that I would advise growing and successful companies in any industry to operate more like startups do. Startup entrepreneurs know what’s happening every day and with everyone in their partnership and supply chains. They have to — they’re too small not to. The problem with companies at the top is that they forget this.

Be bold

Secondly, established companies become risk-averse. They play everything safe. Our Bangladeshi operations, Grameenphone, despite being one of the largest corporations in the country, still takes chances on opportunities that may present some risk. It’s important that businesses go by the 80/20 rule.

Don’t always play it so safe — take some calculated risks. Such behavior is understandable because successful companies have a lot to lose. And successful people and companies sometimes lose their hunger, and it is this which could eventually be their downfall. “Stay foolish and stay hungry” were the words of a man who went on to co-found what became the world’s most valuable company — Steve Jobs of Apple.

To do this, I’ve applied one of the lessons that I have learned over the years here in Asia, which is that it’s important to move your people around within your company. Get them out of their comfort zones and get them doing new things. Most people can do most things, so don’t limit them to one function. See what your people are made of and keep them hungry.

Remember who got you there

Finally, I observe that many succeeding companies begin to lose their focus on the very people who gave them their success in the first place: their customers. They instead begin to obsess over their competitors — their stock values, their promotions, their campaigns, what they’re saying to the press. If a company is ahead of all of its competitors in its market and it preoccupies itself with them, then that company is in fact looking backwards. Keep customer focused and keep looking ahead.

The next win

While in Dhaka, I hosted a townhall and got into a conversation with an employee who was extremely proud about winning a recent regional quarterly sales competition and had some other questions about it. I answered him with a story. It’s about an Olympian from Norway who had been a repeated world champion downhill skier — he had shelves of medals. At some point, a journalist asked the skier which medal he was most proud of. The obvious answer would have been one of his many golds. But he said, “I’m most proud of the next medal.”

Businesses should think like that too.

Our Bangladeshi operations recently appointed a new CEO. And much of what has been said here, I am entrusting him to do. For him, it’s a new culture, a new company, and it’s extremely important that he’s becoming a team member and a coach, not just the big boss. So, he’ll need to really engage at every level. He’ll also need to explore and ask tough questions about how we do things and how to keep our eyes focused on what’s ahead. And all along the way, he needs to empower our people — to use the talents they already have and to acknowledge that he doesn’t know everything. In a company at #1, he needs to trust his experts on execution and, most importantly, he needs to keep that hunger and that fire in their eyes.

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