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What Is Success?

For the CEO of a corporation ‘success’ perhaps means a steady and ‘better-thanbenchmarked competitors’ growth in the top line, bottom line and market cap

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“What gets measured gets done” was one of the first lessons I learnt from my mentor. Packed more wisdom in five words than almost any other advice since! And unless one is an ascetic sitting in the Himalayas, we all aim for ‘success’ in our chosen endeavor – sales, business, medicine, law, sport, journalism or life – and need it for reasons of self-esteem, fulfilment and rewards – material and emotional. But the question begs itself: How do you measure success?

Which gives rise to an even more fundamental question: How do you define success?

This might not be so easy. A salesperson has a sales target (or quota, as the American say) and if that’s achieved or exceeded it connotes ‘success’ that’s clear, objective and measurable. Or ‘profit’ for a corporation in its various manifestations viz., EBITDA, PAT, EVA, Cash Flow, Reserves, Earnings per Share, Market Capitalization and so on. The ‘success’ of some organizations – like Apple or Microsoft – is so out-of-scale  the mere idea of ‘defining’ and ‘measuring’ sounds ludicrous! But what would you say about a startup that achieved Rs 10,000 crores of sales, incurred losses of Rs 200 crores and has a Market Capitalization of over $1 billion? That’s a ‘Unicorn’ in today’s terminology but let’s get back to the basic question: Is it successful…or just another mythical beast that never really existed? ‘Depends on its position on the life cycle’ some would argue stating the ‘losses’ are actually ‘investments’ into building a long term position. Difficult to argue with that – especially if the funders don’t mind.

But let’s move away from the world of commerce. How do you define ‘success’ leave alone ‘measure’ it for, say, a government, a university, a hospital or perhaps a charity? My friend R. Gopalkrishnan raises an even more interesting conundrum: how do you measure ‘success’ of Innovation?

I clearly don’t have cut and ready answers to any of the above but let me propose four fundamental postulates:

First, ‘success’ cannot be defined without looking at the Purpose, Vision and Superordinate goals of the organization or activity. Second, no definition of ‘success’ is permanent; it can and must change with time, third, even within the same organization different sub groups can have different measure of ‘success’. And finally any definition of ‘success’ is meaningless unless it can be objectively measured – simply, regularly and credibly.

For most individuals seeking peer approval (or envy?) ‘success’ is defined by money, status, power, material possessions, lifestyle and social circle. Mercifully there are many exceptions: notably men and women in the armed forces, scientists in ISRO, doctors in rural and semi urban government hospitals, teachers….

For the CEO of a corporation ‘success’ perhaps means a steady and ‘better-thanbenchmarked competitors’ growth in the top line, bottom line and market cap.

For an elected government ‘success’ means re-election with an improved majority and for a dictator perhaps the amount of wealth stashed abroad!

But let’s consider three more complex organizations.

First, let’s take a diversified conglomerate like the Tata Group. We all know Ratan Tata was hugely successful, Cyrus Mistry wasn’t … and hopefully Chandra will be. We also readily accept that metrics like market cap, global sales volumes or profits are all essential but far from comprehensive measures of ‘success’. But then what are? How will Chandra be judged 20 years down the line?

Next, let’s consider ‘Little Sisters of Charity’ – the one founded by Mother Theresa. Despite some critics and naysayers a vast majority doesn’t question the immense contribution this Order of Nuns has made to alleviating suffering for the poor and destitute. But how would they define ‘success’? The devout among the followers might even consider the idea of ‘success’ let alone measuring it as sacrilegious. Compassion should not override efficiency and ‘Little Sisters of Charity’ should perhaps evaluate their own performance even though answerable only to a Higher Authority! Maybe by the number of inmates in their shelters, the total number helped? Or perhaps the overall costs per person helped?

Third, consider a large charitable hospital, eg Sankar Nethralaya. They provide state-of-art treatments for problems with the eye – with competence, care and compassion, at very low rates. (I should know, having been a beneficiary!). They also train young ophthalmic professionals and carry out Research. How would they measure ‘success’? Metrics like number of patients treated will be highly misleading considering the widely varied medical problems addressed – from simple cataracts to highly complex vitreo retinal procedures. You just can’t add them up! Should they track cost per patient treated, success rate (in restoring sight), patient satisfaction, doctors trained, professional papers published and presented – or simply by peer ratings? No easy answers although “What gets measured gets done” applies to them as well.

Finally, let me try and address R. Gopalakrishnan’s concern. Innovation (like Leadership, Creativity, Ethics and many others) is an Enabler; the means not an end. Each one of these should create a useful and desirable product, result or service that makes lives easier and better, complies with the laws of the land and expectations of the Society at costs that are acceptable and offer good value-for-money.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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K. Satish

The author is a New York-based independent marketing consultant

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