Target is not the first successful company, nor will it be the last, to learn that failure to continue to do the things that created success will lead to an “agony of success.”
Have you ever heard of a company – I mean, any company – that turns away a customer because he or she wanted to buy too much? I had not either, but I swear that what you are about to read is true!
This past December I walked into a Target store intending to buy Christmas “gift cards” for our kids and their young families. Much to my frustration and consternation, I was told that the number of cards and the amount of total value I wanted to purchase exceeded “company limits” and Target would not sell me the cards. After going through three levels of management – including one who claimed to be the “store manager” – all of whom rejected my effort to purchase the cards, I was forced to leave the store empty-handed. The result? Target lost a nice sale while earning the animosity of another customer.
What was even more troubling and revealing for me, was that every customer service rep I spoke to in the store seemed simply blasé about either creating more sales for Target or satisfying the needs of a customer. The person who claimed to be the “store manager,” for example, did say that I could “get around the rules” if I went to different Target stores on different days, and make smaller purchases at each store. Unbelievable, but true!
With such relentless indifference to customer service, it’s fair to say that I was not the least bit surprised when deep problems at all levels of Target began to emerge this year culminating with the recent resignation of its CEO. Sure, you can blame his departure on the massive payment card breach or the costly missteps when Target tried to expand into Canada. But it would be a mistake to believe that these problems and related declining revenues “just suddenly appeared” and are merely coincidental.
Target has been a great success story, succeeding when many others failed. Target has benefited from a strong management group; a culture built to achieve success and a solid base of earned customer loyalty. In reality the problems being exposed now are simply the public manifestation of what has been a long-term corrosion of Target’s “culture of success.” It is clear now that once success was achieved, the leadership of Target simply stopped encouraging and doing the things that had driven the company to success. What we are seeing at Target now are the obvious symptoms of a company suffering from the agony of success, brought on by a failure on the part of management to recognize that it is even more difficult to retain success, than it is to attain it.
The travails of Target can be a positive learning opportunity – not just for Target management – but also for anyone who wants to learn how to deal with and survive success. I have written about this phenomenon of an “agony of success” over the years, but this real-life example of the agony being experienced by Target is good reason to reinforce what it takes in attitude and action for anyone or any organization to continue to be successful.
At the start, the management of most companies focuses on the quest to become leader in its field, but once that is achieved, few understand that success creates its own set of distinctive problems and new realities. The challenge becomes doing what it takes to stay on top and few managers recognize the subtlety of this change. When a successful company begins its slide away from success, management will often point a finger at changed markets, increased competition, technology advances (or criminal computer hackers), reduced productivity of workers and even government interference, but these are superficial excuses.
Successful companies start to die when they stop doing the things that made them successful in the first place. Successful businesses and the executives who run them become comfortable, lazy, complacent and less tolerant of risk and innovation. In short, they lose the very culture that produced the initial success: doing the right thing at the right time, and doing it first, fast and often.
Protecting success once it has been achieved starts with understanding a very simple apothegm: If you are not making history, you are history. Making history as a leader or company means stepping up and proving the value of new ideas, outflanking the competition, challenging the established order and doing what others either could not or would not do. (It also means allowing a customer to buy as much product as they want!) It takes a yeoman effort to move out front and get to the top, but as difficult as it is to become king-of-the-mountain, the truth is that is the easy part. The effort required to achieve success is nothing compared how difficult it is to maintain success. And as soon as an individual or organization loses the burning desire to make history, they are history.
Chances are good that when a company achieves remarkable levels of success – as Target has – it did so due to a unique spirit and “culture of success” developed by the company leaders. It is this distinctive spirit and culture that drives, fosters and feeds achievement that makes history. However, this “culture of success” is fragile and will exist only so long as it is cultivated and protected by the leaders of the organization. If management fails to do that, then not only will the spirit that drives the success break down, but the very soul of what the group is about will be lost and the organization will be history.
What the leaders of many companies fail to grasp is that the company’s “culture of success” is even more important once the size and critical mass that drives success has been achieved. That is because once an organization attains success, the preservation of that success comes from constantly improving the level of performance, more than it does from attempting to get bigger. To put it another way, Target stores long ago earned the nickname “Tar-zhay” for its inexpensive chic clothes, quality goods and customer-friendly approach. Target was new. It was smart. And the French accent branded the discounter with an unmistakeable je ne sais quoi that made it popular among the shopping masses and provided a cultural rallying call for corporate management. But that was then. This is now. And my, how things have changed.
Maintaining the company culture that opened the door to success is the key to continued achievement because, as the culture developed, it created the environment that allowed and stimulated constant innovation. Success is the child of audacity and innovation. The decline of a successful organization is often the offspring of a failure to innovate. Remember, without constant renewal, the ideas of the past fade, only to be buried by the present and soon forgotten by the future.
Look at it this way. You begin to lose when you begin to be afraid to lose and you continue to win when you’re never content with what has been won. In a competitive environment, if the objective is to avoid failure, as it is with many large organizations, this attitude may actually induce failure since it seeks to maintain only the status quo. The only realistic option for a company’s victory over the agony of success is a constant, concentrated and passionate quest to challenge the changes that the future will bring and strive for more success. Enterprises are rewarded for creating wealth, not for preserving the status quo – and certainly not for controlling costs. The commitment to continued success using refreshed innovation, rather than positioning to preserve is the only antidote against the malady of organizational obsolescence and corporate decline.
There are questions, feelings and signals – that may not have been asked or were missed by the management of Target – that will help determine the temperature of the culture. An individual or company can survive success only if willing to take a fearless and searching review of their current cultural attitudes:
- Do we spend more time talking about how good we are today, rather than how good we can be tomorrow?
- Is change resisted, tolerated or welcomed?
- Is experimentation encouraged, important and constant? Is risk regaled or reviled?
- Are we satisfied with what worked yesterday, or are we searching to find new things that will work tomorrow?
- Do we find we are too busy to take the time to do the little things we took the time to do in the past?
- Have we begun to define success by what we have done, rather than what we could do?
- At first our actions threatened competitors, now do the actions of competitors threaten us?
- Have we begun to feel that getting better is not as important as keeping what we have?
- Have we begun to view process and procedure as more important than performance and progress?
These are telltale signs that any successful individual or company should be constantly thinking about. Being honest and forthright in responding to these questions will help a successful individual or company stay on top and avoid the “agony of success.” This in turn allows a company to continue to make history, rather than becoming history. It would be a good lesson for the management of Target to learn.