Measuring Success

Measuring success

Roopen Roy

(Views are personal)

The way we measure success influences the behavior of those who are measured. If we measure a person’s success in life only by how much wealth he has accumulated or by how much he earns, then we are really motivating him or her to focus on earning money. We may even be signaling the virtue of earning of money to the exclusion of all other goals or objectives in life.

At the recent Republican Convention in Tampa,the Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s wife Ann Romney exhorted everyone to vote for her husband. In her speech she said,“Do we send our children out in the world with the advice, "Try to do... okay?" And let's be honest. If the last four years had been more successful, do we really think there would be this attack on Mitt Romney's success? "

How does Mitt's wife describe her husband’s success? “ I can tell you Mitt Romney was not handed success. He built it.” And what did Mitt build, according to his wife? She says, “I was there when he and a small group of friends talked about starting a new company. Today that company has become another great American success story.” She refers to Bain Capital which has $66 billion of investments under management and it directly employs some 400 professionals. To her, building a pioneering and profitable company like Bain Capital is a measure of spectacular success. And what is implied is this: Mitt can now use the same managerial skills in solving the nation's problems.

Michelle Obama at the Democratic Convention defined the success of Barack Obama very differently. She talked about values that defined the Obamas. According to her, amassing of financial wealth did not constitute success. What constitutes success, then? She asserted ,“We learned about dignity and decency – that how hard you work matters more than how much you make…that helping others means more than just getting ahead yourself. We learned about honesty and integrity – that the truth matters…that you don't take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules…and success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square.”

This value framework is almost Gandhian. In the face of the argument that “the end justifies the means”, Gandhi had responded: ”They say that 'means are after all means'. I would say that 'means are after all everything.” While measuring success, it is important that individuals are not breaking the rules or cutting corners to get ahead. Because in the end , the chickens of dishonesty would come home to roost.

Recently, a friend of mine wanted to me speak to his son about his prospects in US universities. As we talked, I found him to be somewhat cynical about the selection process . I found this attitiude a little surprising and even disturbing. I decided to probe a little deeper. What the young man told me was a horrifying story. Apparently, the kids of rich parents in his class were employing expensive counselors who were not only completing their application forms to US universities but also ghost writing their essays. Many of them were also appending false testimonials of having worked in their father’s or father’s friends’businesses. The young individual was frustrated that the playing field was far from level. I did try to tell him that in the long haul his “dishonest” friends would not do as well. But I do not believe I was able to fully convince him. If individuals get away successfully with dishonesty, people begin to lose faith in the system.

For corporations, shareholder value has been the North Star of success. Ifit is the only shining metric, then we should bid good-bye to the interests of all other stakeholders. In such scenarios, the CEOs will be tempted to do everything in theirpower to maximize shareholder value. He or she may even cut corners on quality, ignore the welfare of workers, indulge in aggressive tax planning to the point of breaking the law, embark on creative accounting and not worry about greenhouses gases or service to the community. Just as Arjuna simply focused on the eye of the fish in the archery contest to win Draupadi, so will the CEO focus on that over-riding metric : shareholder value.

If the Finance Minister of a country is told that growth in GDP is the most important proof of the nation’s progress, then what do you expect him to do? He will focus on that one statistic.He may not have the incentive totake measures that increase equity or a more balanced geographic development. If GDP is the sole mantra ofsuccess, then all policies may be geared to achieve that single metric and other socially desirable objectives like equitable distribution of wealth will take a back seat.

If you are measuring the performance of a car, would you just compute the the horsepower of the engine? What about safety, fuel efficiency, emissions, comfort and the price of the car? Clearly we need measures on multiple dimensions and hence the need for a balanced score card. At the same time ,balanced score cards must be context sensitive. It ought to be designed keeping in mind the person’s work.If a business person is creating quality jobs that in itself is a valuable service to the community. The score card of a teacher or a community worker will be different from that of a professional or a business person. But there is common thread that runs through them all. While pursuing success each person must play by the rules and not cheat. Just as a businessman is not entitled to short-change consumers or mistreat workers, a priest cannot take advantage of altar boys and a charity organizer cannot help himself to the trust funds for his own benefit.

Finally, the moral compass of every person is a set of values that do not flex with compulsions or change with circumstances. The ultimate success must be measured not merely by how well he has done his job but also by whether he has followed his ethical compass. The society has very little use for those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing as Oscar Wilde famously put it.