By Chuck Violand
June 9, 2014
For years I had a plaque hanging in my office that read “The race does not always go to the swift, but to the one who keeps on running.” This philosophy has guided me through much of my life—personal and professional. That’s why I always made sure whatever sport I played had more to do with physical and mental endurance than with physical or mental giftedness. While I might not have been as big or as talented as my opponent, I figured I could always out condition him and win in the last quarter, the last two minutes, or the final mile. Or at least that was what I told myself. This philosophy is pervasive throughout my business as I view each year’s progress as a one year installment toward a bigger future, not as an end in itself. Time goes by fast enough as it is. I don’t need to accelerate life by making it a sprint.
With the economic downturn and corresponding business turmoil we experienced after the 2007-2008 financial debacle, I think we were given a ring-side seat to watch how a long-term approach played out well in some businesses.
Let’s start with an easy indicator of business success: financial performance. While some segments of the economy suffered more than others during the financial downturn, very few were left untouched. Those companies that had taken a long-term approach to business—earning consistent profits, paying down debt, tucking away cash—were able to weather the downturn and emerge stronger than those that didn’t. This isn’t news; it’s business 101. Yet many business owners insist on re-learning this lesson when markets improve.
My theory is that adrenalin messes with common sense. It disorients people into thinking they’re better than they really are, that they played a bigger role in their company’s success than they actually did, and that the fast times they’re experiencing now will never slow down.
We let ourselves be intoxicated with an adrenalin rush. We take on debt-to-finance geographic expansion because we mistakenly believe we’ve tapped out our local markets, or because we have a single customer who tells us they can give us all the work we can handle in a distant city.
In extreme cases we start taking to heart all the back-slapping and flattering things people say and write about us and our businesses. It can be easy to overlook the impact our people, our customers, or just plain luck played in our success.
It’s during the robust times that businesses are most at risk of over-focusing on the present and losing sight of their long-term strategies. This is when we need to ask ourselves how the business decisions we’re making today will play out in ten years. If our decisions are being driven by our egos or by someone else’s opinion about how fast our companies should grow, maybe it’s time to reevaluate our decisions.
As the economy continues to heal and business picks up we may forget the hard-learned lessons of the last few years and think we have to sprint to some vague finish. But remember that long term success is not a sprint. It’s a distance race. The better we prepare ourselves for the long haul, the stronger we’ll finish.