About 16 years ago, after I had created a couple of successful businesses, someone asked me to make a speech about how I dreamed up my ideas. That speech evolved into a talk about the keys to building a successful business, which also drew from everything I have learned from studying companies and non-profits for over 40 years. I have now given that talk – in one form or another – about 700 times on every continent but Antarctica. It resulted in me writing a book in 2001 which fleshed out the same ideas.
A week ago I was privileged to give the commencement speech for the 2009 graduating class of the Liberal Arts College of the University of Texas at Austin. While I spent a great deal of time mulling over alternative topics, especially given my 15 minute time limit (about one quarter of the time needed to give my whole talk), I ended up coming back to my eight basic ideas. I believe they are the keys to a fulfilling life, as well as to building great enterprises, for-profit or not.
You might need to come hear me speak or read my book in order to fully understand or put into practice these eight ideas. My talks and writings are full of examples of these points, past and present. Every day when I read the news, my belief in these points is reinforced.
But maybe you will get something out of this very short and sweet list:
1. Curiosity — nothing is ever discovered by looking in the same place as everyone else, or looking in the same way as everyone else. All discovery starts with exploration. Ask a lot of questions. Go beyond the first “why.” Study the mundane, the “everyday.” Travel, observe, talk to people. Read, go to concerts, try new things. Look at other industries. The answers are rarely where you expect to find them. Opportunities are everywhere.
2. History — you can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you are coming from. Watching key long-term trends is a critical part of successful leadership. What are some of the trends to watch today? What large demographic shifts are at work? What can be learned from the leaders of the past, including those in your own industry and company?
3. Geography — we all come from somewhere, we all grew up somewhere. In a shrinking world, it is more important than ever to understand people and places. Do you know the population of your metropolitan area? Do you know the growth rates of your county and surrounding counties? Do you know what is going on in countries around the world, which places are rising and falling and why? What are people leaving some places and moving to others?
(I believe the above three mindsets are the keys to dreaming up innovative new ideas that relate to the real needs of real people. Once you have a mission in mind, the points below kick into gear.)
4. Clarity of Vision — can any third-grader understand your vision? Or are you trapped in double-speak and buzzwords, an alphabet soup of acronyms, and jargon?
5. Consistency of Vision — do you stick to what you are good at and what you believe in, through thick and thin? Do you have a consistent purpose?
6. Service — the only valid reason for the existence of an enterprise is to deliver products and services to people, to somehow make the world a better place. The minute you think that power resides in the Board room or in Washington, or that your company can be made great through making good deals or acquisitions, rather than through focusing on the customers, you are most likely at the beginning of the end. Serving others well must be the top priority – your other stakeholders including suppliers, community, investors, and employees will then have something to share.
7. Unique Vision — do you sound and look like all your competitors or do you stand out, following a unique path that is true to your enterprise and your soul? Differentiation is the key.
8. Passion — if you aren’t doing something you love, you will never be the best at it!