The keys to sustained success of every great company can be distilled down to three questions.
Highest Contribution Strategy
Question #1: Are we as a business working on our highest contribution strategic initiative?
Amazon won the battle for the world’s biggest online book store before the company won the right to build Amazon Web Services.
Uber won the battle for peer-to-peer ride-sharing before it tackled food delivery and logistics.
Ask yourself: What is the single strategic initiative that will contribute more to your bottom line, your vision, and defensibility than all else. Find it, commit to it, put all your resources behind it, and say no to everything else.
Highest Contribution Execution
Question #2: Have I built a system such that everyone (including me) is working on their highest contribution item with maximum effectiveness?
This guards against the human behavioral tendency to prioritize easier, more achievable initiatives at the detriment of more challenging items.
Often, the most impactful but challenging solutions require non-obvious solutions that emerge after many failed attempts.
NASA didn’t land astronauts on the moon because it was easier than landing an unmanned robot. They landed astronauts there because that goal was set as the highest contribution initiative. Holding that goal as fixed, they completed the challenging work of back-solving for a solution, however many failed attempts. Had NASA instead set “Our 10 Top Strategic Priorities for the 1960s,” I doubt we’d have made it.
Highest Contribution Leadership
Question #3: Am I showing up as the highest contribution leader in every interaction?
As human beings, we operate in any given moment in one of two states: survival or higher contribution mindset.
As a CEO, you broadcast your mindset in every interaction, and it is amplified at scale. It becomes your company’s culture, and that direction shapes the decisions employees make when no one is looking, as Charles O’Reilly of Stanford loves to say.
Of course your job as a CEO includes keeping the lights on, making tough decisions, and growing your company. However, great companies aren’t created to just survive and increase shareholder value. Great companies elevate quality of life for everyone in their orbit—customers, employees, investors.
When operating in this mindset, things like customer development feel less like a race against time and survival and more about discovering ways to delight your customers, solve major problems, and improve life at scale. These, as a byproduct, result in key metrics like higher customer satisfaction, LTV, defensibility, and reduced churn.
A Life of Meaning
Combine these three questions with your own unique strengths, passions, and vision, and you will build something far greater than a life of success—you will build a life of meaning.
“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”
– John Gardner, Personal Renewal