CEO Guru: Persistence and determination
- 27 November 2012
- From the section Business
US TV host Oprah Winfrey seemed to be heeding the show-business adage "leave them wanting more" when she announced in 2009 that her long-running talk-show would be coming to an end after 25 years.
"I've always known I didn't want anybody to have to drag me off the stage," she said in an interview published on her website in May 2011 , shortly before the final broadcast.
But in some ways the ending of the hugely successful show simply marked the beginning of another chapter in an extraordinary career. Oprah Winfrey rose from a troubled background to not only become an internationally-known TV star, but also to succeed in the business world, becoming a rare example of a female billionaire in the process. Among other ventures, her company is now involved in a move into cable television in partnership with Discovery.
It would seem that the apparent drive and energy that has propelled her is unabated. In the interview Ms Winfrey gave in 2011, she explained that resilience was important: "You have to run your own race. Run it like a marathon. And just steadily build energy for yourself so that when you're on the last lap, you're stronger than ever."
Size and scale
Sir Martin Sorrell is another business leader who acknowledges that persistence over the long-haul is an essential ingredient for success. Since founding WPP in the mid-1980s, he has seen the advertising and marketing group grow to an enormous size, employing hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
"I've always been intrigued by size and scale, and never really wanted to do something small and then sell it. What I've been interested in doing is building a business for the long term," he explains.
He says he's always tried to follow his father's advice to: "build a reputation in an industry that you enjoy and then... make it your life's work. Don't flit from flower to flower or from opportunity to opportunity, which is very much counter to what the philosophy is now."
Sir Martin accepts that part of his desire to succeed lies in his "founder's mentality".
"Founders are very emotionally attached to what they do and I often draw the analogy, probably wrongly, [that] it's the nearest a man can come to… having a baby in a sense."
But he also accepts that those who will come after him will inevitably do things differently, and that "that's not a bad thing".
According to Sir Martin Sorrell, there's another critical component that has underpinned his ability to run his company over the long-term: attention to detail. It's no good being one of the persistent driving forces taking the business forward if you don't know what's going on.
"If you... withdraw yourself from the detail, you lose touch," he explains.
If you do end up abstracting yourself, it can be "very difficult to get back in again. What tends to happen is you think 'well, I can sit up here and pull the strategic levers… and leave it to all these people'. You can't. They often need your support. They often need your help to get something done."
Another company founder with long experience is Liu Chuanzhi, who established the computer giant Lenovo in China the 1980s. He thinks Chinese business leaders and their Western counterparts have much to learn from each other.
One area where he thinks Chinese entrepreneurs have an edge lies in their tenacity. "Westerners have had a stable life for a long time, therefore they generally have less drive than the Chinese," Mr Liu says.
He adds that Chinese entrepreneurs are prepared to put up with "big hardships" in order to succeed.
Driving force and determination are key qualities he looks for in employees. He says the group needs managers who are not just looking for short-term profits, but those who are interested in a long-term career with the company.
The co-founder of lastminute.com, Brent Hoberman, agrees that energy and drive are important qualities that all business leaders need. But he also warns that if things end up going well, that is a time to be wary.
Many founders of companies, says Mr Hoberman, are outsiders, which can give them advantages in spotting things others do not notice, but success might become a trap.
He worries that, as his own companies achieve more and more, he might start to feel less like an outsider and more like an insider.
If, he says, he started to feel he had "less to prove… that would probably be very dangerous".
Steve Tappin, who specialises in coaching chief executives, says he warns his clients that they should be careful not to become complacent.
The pressure at the top of the business world is relentless today, and the need for stamina is greater than ever.
"Grit and tenacity are must-have qualities" for business leaders, he says. Chief executives must be prepared to drive themselves, perhaps harder than their colleagues, if their enterprises are to succeed.