Charting a true path to success

Rebecca Hagelin

3/2/2007 12:00:22 AM - Rebecca Hagelin

Professional athletes taking steroids. Corporate bigwigs cooking the books. College students cheating on exams. Parents going ballistic at kids’ sporting events. Politicians resorting to dirty tricks. What do they all have in common?

All flow from a scorched-earth, win-at-any-cost mentality. And all leave behind a trail of wreckage -- ruined lives, damaged reputations and widespread mistrust -- not to mention a lot of anger, betrayal and cynicism.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little healthy competition. Playing hard, and playing to win, is a laudable strategy. Indeed, judging from the track record of human achievement, it’s the only strategy with any hope of success. It’s when we add “at any cost” to the equation that trouble starts.

All well and good, you may say, but how can compete honestly in my business -- and my life -- and succeed in a world filled with cheating, chicanery and cheap shots?

Immerse yourself in the lessons contained in a powerful new book titled “The Science of Success,” and you can’t go wrong. “The Science of Success” is a blueprint for how to engage in ethical business practices that will benefit your business and society.

It comes directly from a man who should know: Charles G. Koch (pronounced “Coke”) is the CEO of Koch Industries, Inc. The book is subtitled, “How Market-Based Management Built the World’s Largest Private Company” -- and has it ever. Koch Industries, a leading producer of gasoline, chemicals, polymers, packaging and tissue, posted annual revenues of $90 billion in 2006, up from $70 million in 1960.

And much of that growth, Koch notes, occurred after the company had become a large organization with about 80,000 employees. That’s unusual. Most large corporations become stagnant after the initial rush of growth has taken place. By learning to embrace the change inherent in a free market (what economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”), Koch Industries has charted a path to success worthy of imitation.

I can’t reproduce every nugget of wisdom I encountered in this inspiring book -- and frankly, even if I could, I wouldn’t want to spoil your enjoyment of it -- so let me highlight a portion of it that particularly impressed me. It’s in Chapter 4, “Virtue and Talents,” and it concerns the need for both. After all, the most talented individual in the world, absent virtue, can rob people left and right. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, virtue is at least as important as talent. Koch notes the lesson an aspiring company should draw from this:

“Norms of behavior are how we behave and expect others to behave. For a free society to function, beneficial norms of behavior, such as honesty, respect for others and their property, making a contribution, being responsible and taking initiative must be widely practiced. Norms of behavior, when combined with shared values and beliefs -- what is deeply cared about -- comprise a group’s culture.

“To function effectively, any group of people, whether a society or organization, must be guided largely by general rules of conduct, not specific commands. Leaving the particulars to the person doing the work encourages discovery. It also enhances adaptation to changing conditions.”

Amen to that. Here we see, in a nutshell, how ethical behavior courts success in the business world (or in any world, for that matter) and why “win at any cost” actually drives success away. We see why the smart businessman cultivates a culture of virtue. We see why the 10 Guiding Principles that define Koch’s “Market-Based Management” has this at No. 1: “INTEGRITY: Conduct all affairs lawfully and with integrity.”

As Koch explains:

“Employees with insufficient virtue have done far more damage to companies than those with insufficient talent. Several years ago, a supervisor in one of our plants decided -- even after training -- that a new government requirement wasn’t beneficial. He saw no need to comply with it. We self-reported his violation and also terminated the employee. Both virtue (that is, living by our shared values and beliefs) and talent (the specific skills and knowledge required to excel in a specific role) must be present.”

It might be difficult at times to stand up for virtue in a world where far too many people cut corners. But as Charles Koch’s book shows, we can’t cheat and then expect to succeed at anything -- other than hurting ourselves, our loved ones and everyone around us. If there’s one thing Koch Industries demonstrates daily, it’s that nice guys don’t finish last. By combining integrity with talent and drive, they create genuine success -- and win the only race that really matters.