We all need help at one time or another, and there is no shortage of people and companies who are happy to give advice. Some, like your mother, are willing to take over your life and tell you what to do all the time — “You’re not going to wear that, are you?”
It is the same in other aspects of work and play. I am an avid golfer, and golf has more advice givers than any other game. Magazines and books galore offer the secret to longer drives, crisper irons and deadlier putts. Equipment vendors overwhelm us with ads for balls that fly farther, clubs that cure faults and gadgets that we can wrap around just about every part of our body to enhance our swing.
The story is similar in business. Writers and consultants tell us about the eight best practices, the secrets of leadership and seven things every successful manager knows. This arena is more important than golf, yet there is a saying among golfers, “A bad day on the course is better than a good day in the office.”
What is the secret, who’s got it and how do you get it? The problem with the best way to do something is that every time you go to do it the circumstances are different. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out, “You never step in the same river twice.” Again, in golf you never hit the same shot twice because all conditions — weather, ball location, pin placement and yourself — are constantly changing. In a company, every day is different due to people, goals, deadlines and reorganizations. So, if change is constant, how can there be a best way?
There are general rules that apply in any situation. Conversely, every situation has a multitude of variables, almost all of which are unique to that situation. Take benchmarking as an example. When you benchmark your company against another firm or within your industry, how comparable are you in terms of size, product line, brand reputation, growth rate, leadership vision, financial strength, employee competence or a dozen other variables, all of which interact constantly to produce their results? If you are growing and they are stagnant, or you are financially weak and they are highly profitable, or your technology or systems are more advanced than theirs, what is there to compare?
The point is that looking for the secret outside is a fool’s errand. It is as pointless as the 5’10”, potbellied, 45-year-old golfer who tries to emulate 6’1”, 36-year-old, ripped Tiger Woods’ swing. Woods has hit more than 10,000 balls and worked with three swing coaches to find the swing that is best for him. He doesn’t copy another player’s swing just because that player won a recent tournament. Likewise, your company attempting to adopt a recruiting strategy, buy a training program or mimic the incentive pay system of a company that is quite different on the dimensions listed previously is absurd. You can’t buy a good golf swing, and you can’t buy business success. So, if benchmarks don’t have the secret for you, who does?
The answer is obvious. You do. You can ask people for advice, but you must be certain they can respond in a way that suits your situation. In the end only you have the answer, provided you are smart enough to understand your situation, able and willing to gather and accept facts that run counter to your biases, and committed enough to work until you find the secret.
In the 53 years I have been in the business world, I find the biggest stumbling block to success is within. As author John Muir said about self-discovery, “going out I found is really going in.” Some people are lazy — looking for the simple answer; ignorant — not prepared to find the solution; predisposed — unwilling to accept the uncomfortable truth; or fearful — frightened by what discovery might disclose. The solution is constant learning, being aware of what the world has to reveal and unshakably committed to finding and then accepting the secret. The secret is within you. Pay attention and it will be revealed.