Home Human Resources News Graeme Yell: Want to be number one? Don't obsess over achievements

Graeme Yell: Want to be number one? Don't obsess over achievements

by LLB Editor
25th Sep 13 8:48 am

What you can learn from the BlackBerry crumble

My first mobile phone was a Nokia. I couldn’t tell you what model it was but I got the handset free with a television that I bought in 1995 (of course I had to sign up to a contract). It was a chunky little fellow with a boingy aerial that you had to put up to make and receive calls. At the time I thought it was the most astonishing piece of technology I had ever seen – sure, it was a bit bulky, but the ability to phone people or to be phoned at any moment in life seemed like an amazing step forward in modern living.  

Earlier this month, Nokia sold its mobile phone business to Microsoft for a few billion dollars and created a handful of headlines on business pages but (particularly in view of world events at the moment) did not create huge shockwaves of surprise. As is typical for acquisitions, it caused Nokia’s share price to increase and Microsoft’s to drop. That in itself is a clear and pessimistic – but fairly accurate – indication of the markets’ sentiments about the likelihood of success for most acquisitions.  

And ofcourse this week we heard about BlackBerry being sold off to canadian firm Fairfax Finanicial in a $4.7bn deal. The company was valued over $75bn in 2008.

Despite this, it is fairly shocking that the organisation who had a massively dominant position in mobile phone handsets, and who (arguably) created that market in the first place, should slip to such an ignominious position in the space of a few years. I have heard this described as ‘corporate complacency on a massive scale’ – possibly true, but it equally points to other factors: the inherent difficulty for the market leader to innovate and take a wider perspective, and the danger for cultures which focus on achievement at all costs, are both organisational behaviours which led to both BlackBerry and Nokia’s decline. On the latter point, in particular, a great many organisations should be taking note.  

Almost every organisation I have ever worked with has an (often unchallenged) obsession with achievement. They recruit, reward and ‘make heroes’ from employees who are deeply and relentlessly driven: ‘doers’ who will stop at nothing to achieve tasks – to do things faster and more efficiently. Often, the resulting behaviour can look pretty impressive: people who will work incredibly long hours and undertake phenomenally difficult challenges. As this drive for achievement is deeply ingrained into the values we encourage from the cradle in Western societies, it is not too difficult to find people to do this. So it’s no great surprise to see this attitude powerfully embedded in the cultures of many organisations.

However, the achievement imperative has a dark side too, with two distinct facets. Firstly, the driving obsession with ‘doing’ can lead to disregard for others. In some organisations, so long as you ‘deliver the goods’ it is OK to (metaphorically speaking in most cases) leave bodies strewn in the corridors. The second, and this is where big companies have come unstuck, is that the blinkered focus on the task in hand may lead to an inability to see the wider perspective. This is a particularly acute risk for organisations who reach number one in their market. It takes a fundamentally different approach to maintain a leading position, compared to reaching it in the first place. Suddenly there is no-one to emulate or try and out-compete; the leadership, purpose, vision and behaviours that got you there will not keep you there. 

At the start of this piece, I said that the ability to phone or be phoned at any moment seemed like an amazing step forward in modern living. That is, until my chunky little technological marvel started to actually ring and intrude into parts of my life which were previously full of peace, quiet, contemplation and solitude. As Joni Mitchell says in Big Yellow Taxi “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.

Graeme is a director at global management consultancy, Hay Group, specialising in leadership and talent management. He is a passionate advocate for the role leaders can (and should) play in business and society, and likes to spend his spare time socialising, cycling, and thinking.

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