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May 09, 2009

Good People, Bad Companies: The Intersection of Skill and Luck


If you have worked at a company that went public or changed the world, you might be given an unfair share of accolades for your part in its success, even if you were actually a pedestrian employee. Similarly, if you happen to have put blood, sweat and tears into an unsuccessful venture, you might be seen as having contributed to that's company's lack of success, or worse, its downfall, giving your resume a black mark. Despite one's best intentions, there is always a strong element of luck in terms of what companies succeed, what products gain share in the market, and, often, if you were hired at the right place at the right time.

In Silicon Valley, the measurement of success and failure can be extremely visible. "Oh. He worked at Google..." says one person in hushed tones to a friend. "And that guy? Let's just say he's on his fourth startup in six years."

But the company name, and the headlines that covered that company's activity over the years, never tell the full story. You don't always know if the person was liked and trusted by their employees. You don't know if they put in 14 hour days or 6 hour days. And you don't know if there was anything they could have done in their role that could have changed the outcome. It's no secret that companies big and small have elite employees, pedestrian employees, and laggards, be they those on the Fortune 500 or ones you've never even heard of.

In a time when the economy is in decline and unemployment is rampant, here and elsewhere, these rapid judgment calls are no doubt having profound effects. How do you explain your way around product failures, hostile takeovers and missed sales quarters? Should the guy whose company chose to go public three months before the market crashed, when yours didn't, giving them $100 million in the bank, and him a nice Mercedes, be considered a better talent than you? Should every former Google employee have a leg up on every former Yahoo! or Ask Jeeves employee, for example?

Watching some industries very closely, it can become clear that people, no matter their role in the organization, will claim the success of their company as their own handiwork. Paraphrasing from a recent release, many of which you've likely seen, a company crowed last month upon getting a new Sales VP, "Prior to joining, (this individual) previously served as a Senior Vice President at (company), where he was responsible for growing sales revenue from $hundreds of millions to $billions." But in the last twelve months, I had actually seen others of this company's alumni report that it was they who had been the driver for the same growth - generating the same similar press release.

Should they all take credit for the same thing, even if one person led worldwide sales, another was a regional area manager, and another oversaw channel efforts in a single territory?

There is something to be said about having been part of a shared experience of success or failure, and learning what to do next, should the opportunity present itself again. In Silicon Valley, where it's well known the vast majority of startups will eventually fail, most of us have two or three companies under our belt that didn't make it. An elite few managed to jump from success to success and not miss a beat. Still others have alternated success with failure, with a healthy mix of effort sprinkled with luck through the process.

It's this knowledge that doesn't get me starry-eyed when I bump into people who played central roles at companies that are household names today - not any more than I look askance at those whose history may be more checkered. All we can do as individuals is deliver our best effort and work to help the company we are at succeed to the level of our abilities. And should that not work, we should take a deep breath, look around, and do it again. Risk is not something to be feared, and with risk always comes the chance that you won't succeed - and it might not always be because of you.