Some people’s lives have an enormous impact on society at large. They make history, push the bounds of the possible and reinvent reality.
Others are simply “successful.” They live in nice houses, drive nice cars and are recognized for their impressive work ethic and intelligence.
Dozens of books can teach you how to become personally successful. But how do you make it to the next level?
There are two paths, and two types of success:
- Those who pursue individual success rely on themselves. They are often the smartest, hardest-working people in the room. They feel like they don’t get enough support and that their coworkers aren’t quite as good as they are.
- Those with powerful, world-changing aspirations rely on their team. They understand that great things are accomplished by great groups of people, not lone geniuses. They build organizations instead of focusing on their personal contribution.
Take a moment for honest reflection. At your organization, what drives results: you or the team?
Background – Life as an Individual Contributor
Embarrassingly, I spent much of my life chasing individual success.
My first successful business was a website called eTestNotes.com, which sold study guides to students preparing for the AP exam.
eTestNotes was entirely my project. I did all of the work and reaped all of the rewards. I outsourced a few tasks, but maintained command-and-control relationships with the contractors. I managed to build a valuable website which recently sold for five figures.
All-in-all I felt pretty successful, but had I really accomplished something meaningful?
What Got you Here Won’t Get you There
Selling eTestNotes was great, but there was a problem that hamstrung my subsequent efforts.
I had started a new business called Viibrant with two exceptionally talented co-founders. My goal was to build a marketplace where experts in any subject could make money and build their influence by creating online courses. Long-term, I wanted to entirely reinvent education by creating a new experience, empowering the student and leveraging market forces to drive constant course improvement.
I was reaching for a goal that was much bigger than myself, which was a step in the right direction. I wasn’t just concerned about personal success anymore.
The problem was that my leadership style didn’t reflect this change. I still felt like I needed to be present if stuff was going to happen. I was operating under a command-and-control model with my cofounders, although I didn’t recognize it at the time.
We were making steady progress developing Viibrant and gathering experts to make courses, but things weren’t going as well as they could have been.
Our creativity seemed somewhat limited. We weren’t clicking with each other as much as I would have liked. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was.
It was at this inflection point in Viibrant’s development that I had what the authors of Tribal Leadership call “the epiphany.”
It all started when I read the Valve Employee Handbook.
Valve is an enormously successful gaming company that has produced hits such as Halflife, Portal and Team Fortress 2.
The remarkable thing about Valve is that they don’t have any organizational structure. None. No one reports to anyone else – there is no hierarchy whatsoever.
If you want to get something done at Valve, all you have to do is convince enough people that your project is the most valuable use of their time. There’s no red tape, and once you’ve attracted enough support your coworkers can simply roll their desks over (every desk is mounted on wheels) and get started.
This intoxicating image burned itself into my mind – and made me quietly question my conception of “leadership.”
The Machine that Builds the Product
The founder of Valve can’t hope to drive the company’s success simply by working really, really hard. He fuels progress by building an organization of exceptionally talented people, helping them form relationships and giving the freedom to be creative and use their judgment.
Valve understands that inspiring things are accomplished by great groups, not lone ‘star performers.’
This realization led me to propose implementing the Valve model at Viibrant. My team members and I voted, and the motion passed (surprise!).
Since that fateful day, I have seen each of us become significantly more productive and creative. The results have been nothing short of extraordinary.
How do you get stuff done? Is your business a one-man or one-woman show even though you’re technically part of a team?
How do you accomplish big projects? Do you push yourself harder or build a powerful team? Who is responsible for the successes you’ve experienced: you, or the team?
Nothing you can accomplish yourself will make history.
Great teams can change the world.