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Richard Bistrong: How, then, should we measure success?

Clayton Christensen gave a speech that later became a best-selling book called How Will You Measure Your Life. He talked about former Harvard Business School classmates who “didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.”

Christensenfound that people driven to excel have an “unconscious propensity to under-invest in their families and over invest in their careers.” That cuts them off from intimate and loving relationships with their families, which should be “the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.”

With all that in mind, I reflected on my own trajectory and other careers that take people far from home.

In 1997 I started traveling the world as a VP of international sales. Ahead I saw only great opportunity. My first year was marked by success.  

As my thinking went, the more time I invested in overseas sales calls and market development, the more I would accomplish. I thought it was totally linear — more time overseas meant more success, and more success meant more money.

But as Clayton Christensen said, “If you study the root cause of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.”

For me that disaster was personal. I allocated fewer and fewer resources to the things I once had said mattered most. Instead I strived for gratification that might come from bonuses, reward, and recognition.

In 1997 my children were quite young, in a loving household, so I thought the incremental return of my being more present in their lives wasn’t as rewarding as investing time in the field. I told myself the time away was part of my duty as the family bread-winner.

But I failed to see that my family needed me. When I think now about my eventual decent into deceit and dishonesty, I understand how I lost sight of what Christensen calls “the metric by which your life will be judged.”

That metric, Christensen says, “are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.”

That’s not something anyone can put in a sales report, earnings statement, or quarterly forecast. Still, it’s the one metric I ignored, at great cost to me and those I loved. While today most of those relationships have been happily repaired, the healing continues.

It’s never too late to change the way we measure success. All it takes is a decision. As Christensen said: “Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.”

My hope now is that others who may read this, whether they’re sales people or those managing them, will find ways to measure success using “the metric by which your life will be judged.”


Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. He was named one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics for 2015. He consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues. He can be contacted by email here and on twitter @richardbistrong. He’ll be a speaker at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference 2016.

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