In the Shadow of Success

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Publication date:

December 02, 2021

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When I was a kid, I had a lot of fun releasing ballons into the air and see where the winds would take them. I would attach a postcard to each of them with my name and address in the hope that somebody would find the cards and mail them back to me. In anticipation, I would stalk the mailman for days. As a kid, you think anybody out there is just looking for crashed ballons with cards attached to them! Come to think of it, I never found one myself.

At one time, somebody did send back a card. As it came from across the Channel, I got quite excited as this was my first contact with someone well beyond the horizons I saw going to school every day. More recently, my daughter and I sent up some ballons with cards attached to them but, to her disappointment, nothing has come back yet. The odds of it happening are not that good. I suspect that a virtual balloon released online might get better (and faster) results these days. I doubt, however, that this would please her heart as much as the returned card did mine years ago.

Having some restless entrepreneurial genes and a spirit for adventure in me, I sent up quite a few ballons in my academic career as well. Some never got off the ground, while others popped and came crashing back down to the ground. A few went up, caught the prevailing winds, and are still floating at great heights. Those are my success stories.

As success typically entails, it took the efforts of many to get these balloons up and, more importantly, keep them up. Success is rarely if ever built on solitary efforts. It takes a team with many grinding away in the background and out of the limelight. In my success stories, I will let the teams decide whether the balloons made it because or despite of me. In all cases, however, I am happy having my fingerprints on them. All of them were experiences that taught me many valuable lessons.

As one gets older, it is not unusual to sit back and take stock of what one has achieved or attempted to achieve. Rewinding the tape and reflecting on experiences leads to learning and, in some cases, profound wisdom.

As I looked at what my success stories have morphed into, I noticed four characteristics they share: first, success has long legs; second, success has short memory; third, success grows roots; and fourth, success is a magnet for takers.  They characterize some of the challenges successful projects face in their quest to remain so. Let me share some of my thoughts on each of them.

Success Has Long Legs

This is something that many of us have observed: as soon as a project becomes successful, there are plenty of people who want to take credit for its success. In fact, and my own experience supports this, those who deservedly should take credit often do not. They seem content with knowing the role they played and the contributions they made, and they neither need nor expect any adulation. In fact, people who need public praise and crave the limelight are seldom the ones who build anything meaningful in the first place.

When I think back on the history of CEIBS – the business school that I helped shape and built and that is one of my success stories – many people played crucial roles at different stages. As I was there from day one and remained part of it all through its teenager years, I have first-hand knowledge of who made a real difference and could comfortably claim their part in the school’s success. Many who do are not on my list. Indeed, success has long legs.

Success Has Short Memory

When I talk to people who work at CEIBS today, very few have any idea of its history and how the school actually came into being. In fact, one former staff member wrote a book about the history which angered quite a few people who were intimately familiar with the school’s history. Since I was there when the early steps were taken, it can be quite infuriating to see history being rewritten to serve ones own purpose.

CEIBS was built on the back of a development-aid project that was entirely financed by the EU. That project was based in Beijing, started in 1984, and was scheduled to run for a decade. It was never completed as initially envisioned but morphed into CEIBS, conceptually in the late 80s and then operationally as of the early 90s. In larva, there was neither a school nor Shanghai; it was just a small, full-time management development program that took in students every other year and was housed in a small wing of the China Enterprise Management Association (CEMA) which hosted the project. Those were the humble beginnings that inspired some of us to build a world-class business school.

How CEIBS ended up in Shanghai is a long and fascinating story few people know. It was essentially the result of political realities that emerged when the school sought an independent legal status and a visionary Shanghai mayor jumped on the opportunity to make that happen. Having a world-class business school fit well into the ambition of Shanghai to reclaim its status as a global business and financial center.

With success having a short memory, I started to reflect more broadly on what we are told about our own history. What we know is probably not everything of what happened, and is not necessarily a fair representation of what actually transpired in distant times.

Success Grows Roots

As a project becomes successful, it begins to grow new roots. The story gets embellished, sometimes beyond belief. I have heard stories about CEIBS that never happened and are not part of its history. This is somewhat puzzling because success can stand on its own feet and does not need embellishment. If it needed embellishment, it would not be a success.

What seems to be happening is that embellishment gives some people an opportunity to rewrite their own trajectory and claim some ownership in the project’s success; i.e., the long legs mentioned above grow roots.

Growing those roots also shifts the point of gravity and moves the project off its true historical center. In doing so, it often biases reality and discounts the efforts of those who really made a difference in its success.

Success Is A Magnet For Takers

If you have ever tried to build something new and meaningful from the ground up, you know that it takes dedicated people who are willing to take risks and are ready to put their own reputations on the line doing so. As not all balloons get off the ground, there is always a risk that the efforts made might not pay off.

These givers understand that they need to be fully aligned and pull together to achieve anything. Once success is achieved, however, the culture of a place becomes much more individualistic. When that happens, alignement and cohesiveness need to be externally imposed and managed through incentives.

The fact is that success attracts takers, people who see the success as a platform to be leveraged for their own ambitions. They are not there to give or help build; they are there to take and shine. For the leadership of a successful project, it often becomes a daunting task to entice these people to make institutional contributions.

Any success story will find itself in the limelight at one point or another. When it does, it will throw off a shadow. We should keep in mind  that reality shapes that shadow, and then only the contour of that reality.

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