Updated: Aug 19, 2021
Running across this quote cannot help but make me smile. Declared more than 300 years ago, it rings as accurate today as ever. General George Patton once said, "Weapons change but man who uses them changes not at all. To win battles you do not beat weapons; you beat the soul of the enemy man." In business, the weapons change to reflect the times, but the people remain the same throughout history.
Many ask why I pursued a degree in psychology when my passion is business. The short answer is that business is always and forever about people. I encounter many MBAs and a few DBAs. The business world is rife with accountants, engineers, and lawyers. Yet the one area no one understands is psychology. My competitive advantage in the world is that I love and understand people. In an ever-changing world, I take solace in the fact that people never change, while my understanding of them continues to grow.
Mark Twain recognized the unchanging nature of man when he said, "History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes." You can identify the stage of a company by the leadership and how they address the problems facing them. In fact, the issues they name can tell you in and of themselves the stage. Wal-mart has shed the ingenuity of its early years and has begun its decline. Amazon has reached maturity by defeating many of the risks it faced in adolescence. Uber and Lyft are still maturing. Most companies die before reaching adulthood.
Arnold Toynbee, a great historian, claims "civilizations die from suicide, not by murder." The word "civilizations" could easily be replaced by "corporations." Having conquered all external threats, they revel in their glory and become focused on profits and bottom line numbers instead of innovation and creativity. Disputes erupt from within, which ultimately tear a company apart while they ignore external challenges.
Rome was not defeated by barbarians so much as it destroyed itself, allowing the barbarians to march right in. Similarly, Kodak failed to notice a shift in photography away from film and to digital media. Xerox invented the personal computer but instead focused on copiers. Blockbuster survived changes from VHS to DVDs but failed to recognize the power of kiosks or streaming media. Sears pioneered the mail-order retail business and built their famous tower in Chicago to house their growing administrative offices, calculating they would eventually require the entire building. Currently, Sears' ownership is piecemealing the company out part by part as it trods slowly toward death.
In consulting, I am frequently asked to solve a problem with the unspoken addendum to solve it without requiring change. My greatest successes lie with companies in the growth stage and my most significant failures with the companies in the bureaucratic (aka decline) stage. If you ever have a free moment, research Louis XIV, King of France from 1643-1715, after whom the state of Louisiana is named. He was brilliant, accomplished, and originated the phrase many CEO's have since uttered. Have my employees and customers forgotten all that I have done for them?