Learning Curve: Passing the plateau

by Tracy Clayson
Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.
Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.

Professional development is critical for business owners who tend to get bogged down in the day-to-day and need re-invigorating to spur them to improve the organizations they run.

I count myself among such owners. As a result, I make sure to attend events as often as I can, and to read and learn from the best. At a TEC Canada event last month, I gained knowledge that was both powerful and daunting.

Sometimes significant negative events can shape us into much more powerful human beings than if we had won absolutely everything, every time. As Bill Gates said, success is a lousy teacher.

Even the most ambitious and successful business people can plateau after reaching great heights, then requiring a reboot. My recent boost came from one of Richard Branson’s advisors, Mark Thompson, who runs a highly successful venture capital firm.

Thompson has a particular interest in business leaders who take risks and don’t settle, follow trends or copy others. He believes in those who use their creative energy to differentiate themselves from the mainstream. You could certainly argue that his colleagues, including Charles Schwab, Steve Jobs and Branson, represent the type of business innovators well known for breaking from the status quo.

Thompson was raised by a mom with polio and had to help care for a brother with developmental delay and a young sister. With such high stakes—meeting and managing the living costs and household requirements of his family and ensuring its survival as a pre-teen—how could he not at least learn the importance of good planning and organization?

Thompson eventually got into Stanford University, where he spent time with classmate Charles Schwab. He would eventually become Schwab’s chief of staff.

Thompson’s talk focused on the characteristics and personality traits that top leaders in emerging businesses share. These disruptors, Thompson explained, often stay ahead of the curve and create their own rules because they are not satisfied to simply adapt to the ebbs and flows of consumer preferences.

They map out ideas, working to predict people’s known desires and expectations. Virgin Airlines, Uber, Airbnb, Netflix, Amazon and Alibaba are examples of companies creating solutions to problems the known market leaders in travel, taxi, hotels, TV networks and retailers failed to see.

We see disruptors of supply chain functions galvanizing with great momentum, such as the Uber/Otto self-driving truck, UberRush Shipments, OpenMarket Mobile engagement for logistics and Transportation and Convoy, an open market freight brokerage funded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

In his book, Success Built to Last, Thompson lists five factors that differentiate successful entrepreneurs: Paranoia, Pivot, People, Position and Performance.

Leaders like Larry Page, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson use their paranoia instinct to be vigilant in their market leadership. They use it to tirelessly seek out new ideas, solutions, start-ups and unarticulated needs to capitalize on.

Every business aims to triumph in its market by staying ahead of the competition through innovation. Nimble, creative business leaders share an ability to pivot their business strategy and switch direction briskly and seamlessly. These traits can be found in companies that generate technically advanced individuals able to convert ideas into marketable products and services.

The best companies know how to create highly desirable work environments and cultures for the best people. Google and Virgin attract highly skilled professionals who are driven to develop new things. They are keenly aware of the risks and rewards of launching disruptive emerging technologies like Fitbit and Airbnb.

Finally, the Internet of things is clearly the ultimate position response to the growing expectation and demand for convenience and connectivity. Performance is perhaps most self-evident.

Many of the leading inventions we now take for granted came at the cost of many failed attempts. Thompson argues the higher the risk ratio, the better the chance for success. Einstein said for every problem he was trying to solve, 55 minutes out of an hour would be spent thinking about strategies, conducting experiments or finding ways to understand the problem; only the last five minutes were generally used to conclude the findings.

But you don’t have to be the one who risks the failures, like Richard Branson and Larry Page. They are known for waiting and watching to see when established businesses could benefit from their intervention, positioning themselves to offer new ideas and suggest markets others risk entering.

We can all learn something from these leaders, applying their lessons to our own careers. If we don’t, we risk getting stranded on that dreaded plateau with achievements in hand but nowhere left to go.