Is Your Business Philosophy Holding You Back?

8 approaches that could be keeping you from getting ahead, and what you can do to change that.

I used to make fun of the word “philosophy.” Thought it was too impractical, too theoretical, and too useless.

Wow, was I wrong.

Philosophy means the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group.

That definition is according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. To me, your philosophy is your most basic operating system for making decisions. It’s the foundation of what you will achieve in the future. It’s what causes you to do certain things and not do other things. Everybody has a philosophy whether they realize it or not.

The sum of your beliefs, concepts, and attitudes creates your approach to the marketplace and to your career. Rather than just staying with whatever approach you’ve always used, I encourage you to look into your business philosophy and decide whether or not it is what you want to continue to stick to. One question I would like for you to consider is, “Will my current philosophy generate my desired business and career outcomes in a sustainable way?”

The Non-Sustainable Approaches

Over the years I’ve witnessed, and in several cases used, approaches to achieving results that were not sustainable. Here’s a brief overview of several of these approaches:

The Dutiful Employee Approach

This person does whatever the boss tells him or her to do. He or she does a fantastic job once the directions have been given from the boss. However, this person never makes a decision and always waits to be told as to what the next project will be. This type of employee does have an upside for the organization. The boss can count on this person to do what he or she is told to do and not waste time arguing. Also, the person’s work is usually done at a very high level.

However, this is not a sustainable approach for success. What if the boss is wrong? What if the boss leaves? What if this person gets promoted and has never developed the ability to think for himself or herself.

People have been told for centuries, “Do what your boss tells you to do and you will be fine.” That is not good advice over the long term. It might work for a high school student on a summer job, but certainly not for an employee who strives to have a great career.

Listening to your boss is a good attribute. Waiting to be told what to do at every moment and blindly following that advice no matter what it is does not add up to a great career.

The Chameleon Approach

A chameleon is a lizard that changes its colors to fit in with its surroundings. That is effective in the forest for the sake of survival. A chameleon in the business world does and says whatever he or she thinks that other people want. When this person receives any criticism, he or she instantly changes to try to meet what the criticizer wants. It’s a disaster. The chameleon never sticks with any opinion, but rather jumps around to please the person who is in that moment.

To sustain success, you need to stick to your own principles and values. What do you stand for that you are going to stick to no matter who is in the room?

It is important to try to meet the personality needs of other people. It is a good thing to talk about what is of interest to the other person. Changing your values and your beliefs just because someone wants to hear something else from you is a very dangerous habit.

The Polite Dictator Approach

This is a special form of the chameleon. The polite dictator is the boss who tells his or her employees whatever they want to hear and asks for their opinions and ideas, but who has already decided how things are going to be done.

It’s bad enough being a dictator, but leading people to believe that you are considering their ideas when you are really not has a devastating effect on your relationships with them. Eventually, they will completely disengage from you and stop supporting your direction. They may stay on the payroll, but they are largely gone from helping you achieve your business objectives.

The Workaholic Approach

This approach says, “As long as I keep working longer and harder hours, I will eventually win.” The mistake is that the person substitutes “effort” for “competence” and “effectiveness” in the equation for achieving success. Working insanely long hours only guarantees that you will eventually become exhausted. Many workaholics end up bitter that they are not given the title or the compensation that they feel they have earned.

Hard work certainly has an important place in the story of success. However, if a person thinks that working longer and longer hours is the key to achieving greater success, he or she is going to run into a serious brick wall known as The 168-Hour Rule. There are only 168 hours in a week. You get them, I get them, and everyone else gets them. There is a firm upper limit to the number of hours any person can work in a week. You can’t continually double your effectiveness by doubling the number of hours you work because pretty quickly there won’t be that many hours in a week.

The Student Approach

This approach says that if you learn enough, eventually you will become a major success. These types of people are obsessed with learning. They go to college and get three majors and then go to graduate school and get two master’s degrees and a PhD. They get into the workplace and read every conceivable book on the topic they want to learn. They sign up for every seminar that they can take, and agree to have multiple mentors. The problem is they think the key to success is the accumulation of knowledge, not the application of it.

Education is a good thing, but only if it is applied toward achieving an important goal. You don’t deserve good results just because you read and read and read. You only deserve good results when you apply yourself toward improving those results and constantly work to improve your performance. It’s not enough to search for ways to be more effective at work. You have to take the risk of applying those ideas even though you might fail. Then you can make adjustments and improve.

The Shortcut Approach

People use this approach when they want to get the same results with far less effort than anyone else. A lot of times this can be very effective. Many processes should be simplified. There is a lot of wasted time and energy and money in almost every organization and the person who finds shortcuts to the desired solution is really a very valuable employee or business owner.

However, when it is taken too far, the shortcut approach can become a substitute for integrity. The person becomes consumed with getting better and better results with less and less effort. Consequently, the fastest shortcut is lying about the numbers. Another quickie is to cheapen your product while keeping the price the same. This approach can generate good short-term results, but can also destroy a person’s career and organization.

The Image Approach

This philosophy says that you have to look the part in order to “earn” success. Up to a point, it makes absolute sense to do this. It does no good to show up at a meeting with a customer wearing a sweat suit if he or she is wearing business casual. It doesn’t help if you sell a $20,000 product that has mud all over it. Images do matter.

However, when people feel they need to constantly upgrade their image in order to achieve greater success, they move away from the source of the value they have to offer, which is their ability to do their job.

Say, for example, you are a salesperson. You’ve just sold a steady flow of high-end products. You were successful because of your competence as a salesperson. However, you want more customers and you feel the need to impress them not through your strong customer relationship skills or your knowledge of the product, but rather by constantly improving your image. You become obsessed with continually buying new cars, new homes, new clothes, new gadgets, and anything else you can think of that might impress a potential customer. Eventually customers will realize you are all image and no substance.

The “I’ll ride on your coattails” Approach

This one happens when a person has a wealthy relative or a friend in a high-level position who is willing to cover for the person’s lack of performance. Perhaps they make sure the person always has a steady flow of cash coming in no matter what they do. They either send the person checks or they keep the person on the payroll no matter how poor the person’s performance becomes.

While the person may feel successful in the short term, the only way to “sustain” success is to always have the sugar daddy or mommy around. If the financial source dies or quits or decides to stop carrying the person, then it’s game over.

The Practical Approach for Sustaining Success

If you want to improve your performance at anything, what’s the most practical thing you can do?

Stop reading this article for a few minutes and write down your answers to that question.

Here’s what I wrote.

First, I will ask myself, “In terms of this performance, what am I doing that is going well and why is it going well? What am I doing that is not going well and why is it not going well? What else can I do that I have not done yet?”

Second, I will reach out to other people who I feel have valuable insights to offer on this type of activity and ask them for their advice on my performance.

Third, I will study people who have done the same type of activity at a very, very high performance level and see if I can learn anything from watching their performances.

Fourth, after I identify the adjustments I want to make I will go back and try the performance again.

I will then repeat the steps over and over again.

While I’m doing this process I will stick to a few values that guide my behaviors: honesty (telling the truth), integrity (doing what I think is the right thing to do even though it might cost me money), curiosity (always searching to learn from every other person), and contribution (attempting to add value to other people).

This simple, practical approach is what I have learned from years of trial-and-error with different philosophies and from studying people whom I consider to be long-term successes at the highest level. It’s not sexy and the payoffs are not immediate. However, it is a business philosophy that I believe will help to generate sustainable success for any individual, and consequently any organization. One of the greatest researchers of sustained great performances of all time is Anders Ericcson. He explains this process over and over in his books and articles.

What is your business philosophy? Is it what you want to stick with over the long term?

Dan Coughlin

Dan Coughlin Dan is a business keynote speaker and seminar leader on leadership, innovation, and branding. He is also an executive coach and author of four books on generating sustainable, profitable growth. His books include "Accelerate", "Corporate Catalysts", "The Management 500", and "Find a Way to Win". His clients include McDonald’s, GE, Toyota, Prudential, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Boeing, Abbott, SUBWAY, Kiewit, and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Read more about