What Got You Here Won't Get You There


By Wayne Rivers, Family Business Institute

Bouncing off a recent blog from Donald Cooper, in this article we want to explore the concept of “what got you here won't get you there.” Marshall Goldsmith wrote an excellent book with this title in 2007. Why is this topic important to construction leaders?

Clinging to old ways is definitely a habit that prevents contractors from achieving the successes they desire. Specifically, the industry-wide focus on crushingly hard work and long hours is — believe it or not — a barrier to long-term success. Let’s begin by stipulating that, to become even moderately successful in construction, one must pedal the bicycle pretty darn hard – especially in the early stages of a career or in starting a company. 

To get ahead in those early days, you had to get noticed by your boss and your boss’s boss. It was all about focusing on the tasks you needed to get done and making your company more successful. "The harder I work, the luckier I get" is a statement taken for granted by virtually everyone in construction. We observe our senior leaders, and like them we drive ourselves relentlessly and work 60, 80, or even 100 hours a week. That’s a crucial ingredient in early career success, and since success builds on success, we take the hard work lesson to heart and initiate a career based on 80-hour work weeks.

We rationalize that what got us to our initial levels of career success, what got us raises, promotions, and accolades from the boss was our hard work. But at what point does the sacred belief in the gospel of hard work actually begin to HAMPER YOUR SUCCESS? Even if you're the most talented entrepreneur, you will hit “The Ceiling of Complexity,” a term coined by Dan Sullivan. It’s the point at which working harder no longer equates to additional success. You work 60 hours a week and run into a problem.

To resolve it, you step it up and work 70 hours a week only to find a new set of problems staring you in the face. You then increase to 80 hours a week. The accepted magic bullet solution in construction is that working harder is the remedy for any set of difficulties.

However, at some point, even the most energetic contractor can't work any harder, and they must begin to focus on working smarter. That's the point of this article: The habits that got us to where we are in senior leadership actually, at a point in time, begin to hold us — and our companies — back. 

Successful people have very few reasons to change the status quo and plenty of reasons to stick with old behaviors; after all, those behaviors spawned your successes in the first place. The way Donald Cooper phrases it is that your company’s biggest challenge, as it grows, is for the founder and other senior leaders to make that important transition from acting as PLAYERS to behaving like COACHES.

Players take initiative; coaches give initiative. To advance your career and your company, leaders must STOP DOING some of the very things that made them successful in the first place. They've got to stop doing tasks and start managing and leading people, and that's a very different skill set.

This advice applies to your personal life as well because those 80- or 100-hour work weeks are not sustainable over long periods of time. If you want to have a healthy, happy marriage, healthy, well-adjusted children, and a healthy, vibrant self, that pace of work is simply not realistic and is a barrier to true long-term success. In your business, learn to give your people tasks, duties, projects, and responsibilities. Set crystal clear expectations, check in with them periodically, and hold them accountable. 

Achievers in the construction business seem to think they have to bring a gritty intensity to work every day. Why not choose a different route, make that mental switch, and elect to be a "happy achiever" that leads people instead of doing tasks? It will take a tremendous mental shift, but ultimately it's the only way to take yourself and your company to that next level.