My dad once said that any baseball player can have a good season, but it takes a different kind of focus to be great throughout his entire career. The goal of any athlete should be sustained excellence, Dad said. He also taught me that in business, the same rule applied.
As a career HR professional, Dad taught me that focusing on employees is the key to sustainable success and growth for a business. When markets shift and customers’ needs change while technology enables new solutions, it’s a company’s employees who design, develop, and deliver the services and products that keep customers happy and attract new ones. I learned the key was to create cultures where employees would bring their best to work each day. Employees who fully engage enable companies to thrive, year after year.
When I went to business school, professors helped me expand my notion of sustainable success. They indicated the focus for sustainability should include the shareowner. I learned it’s a company’s shareowners that provide the capital necessary to run and build a business. Shareowners who can count on consistent, long-term growth will likely see improving stock prices and increases in dividends. In turn, capital will continue to flow to the company to fuel growth over time.
During my first job at Sperry Corporation, my notion of sustainable success expanded yet again. In sales, it became crystal clear that a company’s focus should always be the customer. It’s a customer who decides if a company is successful by making a buying decision. Companies must work hard to earn customer loyalty. While a satisfied customer might seek a slightly better product feature or better price from a competitor, loyal customers won’t. Building loyal customer relationships enables a company to enjoy sustained success, quarter after quarter.
More recently, my understanding of what sustainable success truly means expanded again when I learned about the four questions former CEO Sam Palmisano used when he ran IBM. The first three were in line with what I had learned about employees, shareowners, and customers:
1. Why would someone work for you?
2. Why would someone invest their money with you?
3. Why would someone spend their money with you—what is unique about you?
But the fourth question caused me to expand my thinking again:
4. Why would society allow you to operate in their region?
This last question caused me to shift my thinking in two ways. First, it expanded my recognition of the impact of an organization and got me thinking about what measurable outcomes are required to claim success within a specific community. We had employee engagement surveys, customer satisfaction analyses, and enough financial reporting to choke a horse. But being a good corporate citizen in the community includes more than an occasional philanthropic donation for social good or caring for the environment beyond simply not polluting. Sam’s fourth question requires more than a “do no immediate harm” approach; it requires a “make it better” solution.
Second, this new question also shifted my perspective about time. Unlike the first three questions that had an unspoken time frame of “quarter to quarter” or “year to year,” this question shifted my thinking from the short term to the truly long term. Thinking in terms of “decade to decade” or “century to century,” such that it could continue indefinitely, is clearly a new bar.
Taken together, this expanded view of inclusion along with a completely new view of accountability over time forms a new definition of sustainable success. Those companies that deliver truly sustainable growth are focused on all constituencies and a true long-term perspective. Companies that earn employee engagement, deliver shareowner value, create customer loyalty, and operate as conscious members of the community are accountable for the sustainable prosperity for this and future generations.