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March 05, 2008

The Road to Great Success is Paved with Miserable Failures

D9ae2dfe44a94fc4b141ed1602b97b93img I just finished a wonderful book called New Ideas from Dead CEOs. The book, written by Todd G. Buchholtz, is at times irreverent and witty, at others poignant, but it is always insightful. The author examines the lives and careers of 12 different CEOs and what made them successful. He concludes that they are united by one common thread: failure.

Sam Walton franchised a five-and-dime and, in spite of being beholden to an unfavorable franchising contract, turned it into a successful business, only to be denied a renewal of his lease, because the property owner was overcome with a sense of nepotism and wanted to give the proven real estate to his son.

This gave rise to his desire to be free from artificial and arbitrary restraints set by others, and he eventually became the world's richest person.

Walt Disney was conned out of the right to use one of the first characters he created. He since developed a company that became notorious for ferociously protecting its trademarks and copyrights.

Having toiled in poverty for a good portion of his early life and career, one of his finest creations, Walt Disney World, is now the largest single-site employer in the U.S.

Ray Kroc, a high school dropout,  built a business by convincing companies that sold shakes and malts (such as Walgreens) that using paper cups instead of glassware would increase their sales volume. Kroc further helped their businesses by devising a contraption that would allow them to make multiple shakes at once.

World War II and a slew of other factors caused orders for his machines to slow to a near stop. When he happened upon a couple of brothers in California selling quick lunches (and shakes!), Kroc saw an opportunity to transform the way Americans saw lunch.

Though he may have too hastily signed a contract detailing the franchising opportunity, he never relented in his pursuit of his dream, and after more than five years of quality management and trying to make ends meet (assuming enormous debt to buy out his less ambitious business partners), McDonald's started making a profit, and eventually served "billions and billions" of burgers that, at the time, far exceeded the standard fare of the day.

Additionally, Kroc's franchise terms were much more favorable than his competitors, and he favored the working middle class, who had a stake in their store's output.

Mary Kay Ash was a dedicated wife until her first husband, just home from World War II, decided he wanted a divorce. She remained a good mother throughout her life, but having been thrown into the role of breadwinner for her kids, she became a savvy businesswoman trying to be successful in a world where men were preferred and where her success was often punished.

The woman whose name would become synonymous with facial cleansers, makeup parties, and Pink Cadillacs defied all expectations of the bankers who refused her along the way by fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in women looking to make a few extra bucks or those looking to build their own empires.

I would be hard-pressed to pick any one CEO examined in Buchholtz's book who I admire more than any other, but if pressed I might have to toss a coin to decide between Mary Kay Ash and David Sarnoff, the patriotic immigrant who not only founded RCA and revolutionized entertainment, but who was also instrumental in creating the communication plan that allowed the Allies to coordinate D-Day in World War II.

All of these CEOs, as well as the others examined, had to leap hurdles so high that most people would not have bothered to try to overcome them. Most people would quit and resign themselves to working for someone else.

These CEOs did not point to their failures as an example of market failure. They did not ask anyone else to solve their problems. They simply assessed the situation and worked tirelessly to find a way to add more value to others than anyone else could.

They tried. They failed. They got back up and tried again. We can all learn a lesson from their sense of responsibility and their tenacious spirit. We would do well to remember that we can only fail when we do not learn the right lessons from that failure, and if we stop trying.

Buy the book. You will not be disappointed. - Cam Beck

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Comments

Sarnoff was an interesting tale. His problem in the later years was in failing to establish a viable successor and knowing when to step down. There were a variety of factors that gradually brought down the American consumer electronics industry; RCA's massive vertical integration and reliance on Vacuum tubes proved a burden in the late 60s and 70s. The abysmal fate of the videodisc was another.

However, when we look at his entire career starting in 1915, it is an amazing span of zeal, energy, confidence, and pushing the establishment of radio/tv broadcasting in addition to the supporting equipment.

I also read about Ash & Kroc, great stories all around.

This reminds me of a Japanese proverb that says something like "fall seven times - stand up eight." These stories motivate me never to give up!

Mario - One of the things I love about books with these little snapshots is the inspiration they give to do more reading on the subject. I've identified several biographies I now want to read. :)

Lisa - I love that proverb. Now I also have two more books on my list to at least explore: "Failing Forward" and "Fail Quickly." I suspect I get the message by now, but I'm interested in seeing what examples the authors use and how they make their points.

aaand you just made my buy my first book of amazon.

Abbas - That's awesome. Do you mean *ever,* or just this year?

Have you noticed that the exemplars you cite from the book are all entrepreneurs, and not, strictly speaking, simply CEOs/managers? This is probably worth bearing in mind as we managers search for lessons in these terrific stories.

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