Measuring Success

How do we define success? Is it sufficient to state that if you achieve your objectives you are successful? I am not all that sure.

Let’s look at a number of scenarios.

I teach Business Fundamentals and Strategic Management at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB). Does the number of people graduating from their studies determine our success? While I have no problem telling myself that the number of graduates does indeed impact our subsidy from government, I do have a problem taking the number of graduates as our ultimate indication of success.

Why do I say this? The reality is that any person with a certain level of intelligence can obtain this degree. What then makes for success at the business school?

I do believe that if you come to the USB to obtain a degree, you are there for the wrong reason. We will not be able to claim success should we get you to a point where you walk away with nothing but a degree. I tell my students upfront when they start with their studies that if they are there to obtain a degree, to please ask if they could get a refund. Then use the refund and take me to Mauritius for 2 weeks of golf and tanning – their organization would not notice the difference in their performance in any case.

By this I am stating that the true measure of success of the USB is not the number of students we graduate, but rather the learning these students obtain during their learning journey – because that is what an MBA is about; it is a learning journey that does not end with graduation. As a matter of fact, a strong case could be made that the learning journey only starts then in all earnestness! We should help them develop critical thinking skills and the ability to stay on their learning journey.

Our success is therefore not measureable by something as mundane as the number of graduates, but rather by the quality of our graduates as measured by other indicators, measured long after graduation! Otherwise the old saying is valid: “How do you know a person has an MBA? They tell you!”

The same obviously also goes for schools and universities.

I also had the privilege of visiting a non-profit organization, “Dance For All (DFA).” Philip Boyd, a well-known South African ballet dancer, together with his late wife, Phyllis Spira, created this NPO a number of years ago. The objective of DFA is to give kids from townships who have nothing, the opportunity to be trained in dancing. I have twice had the opportunity to visit DFA and watch the kids (from all ages) dance and see how the trainers put the kids through their paces. Listening to the stories and seeing the passion of a Philip and his trainers, one cannot help but get emotional. These people do an amazing job and it is well worth making an appointment to chat to Philip and see what it is they are doing! Also, do not hesitate to go on to their website and make a financial contribution ( You will be contributing to an amazing cause!

What makes for success as far as DFA is concerned? I could easily note the following:

  • Putting DFA on a sound footing as far as financial support is concerned. This is one of Philip’s major tasks, one that ideally he should not be involved with at all as he is the principle trainer. That is where his passion and major skills lie! This is also an area in which he has a constant struggle, as funding is on a rather ad hoc basis!
  • Getting kids to be able to dance, is another indicator of success. That is after all the medium chosen. Listening to Philip’s stories, one can safely draw the conclusion that DFA is successful. Not only can one see the kids dancing, but the stories about kids moving onto higher level dance academies makes it clear that Philip and his team are clearly successful!
  • The third level of success is the most difficult one, and yet the most important one. To what extent has DFA succeeded in taking kids out of their frequent abysmal living conditions, with no hope, and given them something to live for. To what extent have kids developed a new lease of life? And listening to Philip and his team, it is again clear that they are succeeding at this as well. Hope, one of the trainers, was one of these students way back. She is now one of the crew, one of those giving new hope to kids used to nothing.

Should we have just measured the number of kids being trained, we would have measured the wrong indicator! Whilst that is an important factor, as is the case for the number of graduates at the USB, there are far more important factors that need to be concentrated upon!

In both cases above, it is also important that we also understand what the factors are that we need to concentrate upon to create the value we deem to be important.  We refer to these as value drivers.

Companies that have a profit imperative, also need to identify what the value is they want to create.  Lafley and Martin talk about “winning aspirations” – the vision and purpose that give meaning to the company. Guy Kawasaki also talks about the first step in a start-up company as “Make Meaning.” The value drivers, and where we need to determine success, include the following:

  • Is the employee value offering of such a nature that your employees are satisfied?
  • Are your employees engaged, committed, and motivated? Do they stay and are you seen as an employer of choice?
  • Are you successful at creating and innovating your customer value proposition?
  • Are your customers coming back for more, do they bring others with them, and do they tell everyone they know you are a great company?

If you are not successful in these aspects of your business, you will not have a sustainable business. Remember that the financials are but a set of lag factors! The true sustainable factors lie on other areas. Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that the financials are not important! They obviously are.

For me the bottom line is that we need to be clear in our minds as to what makes for success. It is only when we have clarity on that, that we are able to define whether we have been successful or not. And if we are not clear and focused on these success measures, we will not be successful on a sustainable basis!

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the insightful posting.

    I am a student currently enrolled with the USB MBA and is in the process of completing the Business Fundamentals Module.

    The module on Business Fundamentals presented is a measure by which all modules should be presented. This statement is not only based on my opinion but a general feeling within the group. The course learnings encourage further development and insight into business as a whole – within society and the industry.

    I acknowledge that my viewpoint can only be measured against where I stand and where I have been but I am eager to look back a couple of years from now and come to the same conclusion.

    Thank you for your investment towards South-Africa and societies future.