John Terrill: Tell me about your work and company. What is it that you do?
Ryan Peterson: I am responsible for leading key business development and marketing functions at Übermind, including development and management of strategic partnerships, marketing strategy, social media/web marketing, and marketing communications.
In addition, my team oversees Übermind's Mobile Strategy offering, which enables our clients to uncover and explore the many opportunities made possible by today's mobile and social software.
Übermind is in an interesting, fast-moving industry. We're a full-service software engineering firm and leading app developer for the iPad, iPhone, and Android platforms. We have developed and continue to maintain some of the world's most acclaimed applications, spanning a wide array of industries and platforms.
JT: In the context of your business leadership, how do you define success? Failure?
RP: My gut reaction is to say, "I don't cater to a strict definition."
Though it may sound cavalier, my response stems from my desire to avoid any mental preoccupation or obsession with defining success or failure — especially failure. What I mean is that I try to learn from feedback, but at the same time, resist the urge to convert it into self absorption — either being overly focused on critical feedback or too self-absorbed with the positive. Moving towards one of the poles is unhelpful.
JT: Tell me more about these poles.
RP: Leaders are at the helm, and thus, are often pressured to classify the success or failure of their leadership endeavors in this spectral manner. The method appears sound at a first; we make choices, choices produce outcomes, and outcomes are then measured against what we thought would produce an ideal outcome.
Unfortunately, measuring success in a linear fashion is not only unrealistic, but it is amazingly unproductive. This is true for all leaders, but is most germane to young business leaders who, in my view, are in a much more ambiguous environment than their senior-level counterparts.
In an effort to measure success, the spectrum paradigm wrongfully assumes a universally agreed upon definition of success and failure, and it holds a leader's decisions to the near-term results, completely ignoring the long-term, and ultimately, greater impact of those decisions.
Short-term analysis of success can be extremely detrimental to an up-and-coming leader; it focuses their attention on a single point rather than a strong, long-term success vector.
JT: I hear you resisting a linear definition of success and failure, so what do you mean by a long-term success vector?
RP: Here's an example — salient to my industry — that illustrates the concept of a long-term success vector.
In the late '90s, if we were to compare Microsoft to Apple, it would be laughable to think that Apple would ever be able to realistically go head-to-head with Microsoft and be "winning" the battle in the consumer software industry. Back then, those two companies were headed down very different roads and it would be easy to say that Microsoft was the success and Apple the failure.
Fast forward to present day where Apple — with its still small 6–8 percent share of the personal computer market — has eclipsed the Redmond-based giant in terms of value (valued at $222.12 billion and $219.18 billion respectively). Give them another 10 years and the tables could be turned again, though I'm not betting on it.
Generally speaking, measuring profitability is an obvious method for determining the success or failure from past to present. But leadership is not purely a "past-to-present" endeavor. It's what a leader does next that matters.
JT: But shouldn't leaders be held accountable for their decisions?
RP: Absolutely … I am not arguing against measurement but for right measurement. Here is what I mean:
Rather than a dot on a line, leadership, to me, is more like the variance of my heading towards the intended destination. Sure, I admit the analogy is, perhaps, somewhat cliché. Apropos, every leader has his or her own unique vision for where, and how, they will lead other people. I want "northeast," you may want "northwest," and even though we have different headings, we are all striving to stay on course.
If the term "on course" sounds ethereal and vague, well, it is. To some leaders, existence is solely about profit margin; others see ethics and culture as paramount. To me, my primary concerns are:
- Am I being a good steward of the resources that have been entrusted to me?
- Am I helping others around me develop into better people and reach their goals?
- Am I pursuing business opportunities that I have been able to identify because of my unique gifts and talents?
- Are my personal morals and values reflected in the way I approach my responsibilities? Co-workers? Good days? Bad days? The competition?
- Am I growing and/or improving professionally and personally?
The analogy of a compass heading is a helpful reminder to avoid adhering to a myopic view of time. If a business leader were to direct his or her company in a vector that negatively affects profit in the short-term but yields a harvest far greater than those of its competitors in the long-term, can we truly say that the leader both failed and succeeded?
My aim is to experience as little divergence from my heading as possible but also come to terms with the fact that failure is going to happen – probably more than I realize. When the needle sways, a true leader must humbly take up the charge to make things right.
We all must find the courage to heed those undeniable "tugs" from the Spirit on our heart, which implore us to be the type of leader we somehow know that we were designed to be.
JT: What gives you courage to face failure? Who taught you to approach failure this way and how did they model it for you?
RP: As Christians, we love to explore, discuss, and even debate (though I often find debate more hurtful than helpful), but thankfully there are verses in the Bible that require neither deep discussion nor provoke heated argument. In terms of not being afraid of failure, I think to the Gospel of Mark when Jesus counseled, "Do not fear; only believe." (Mark 5:36).
It's easier said than done, but in times when believing is truly difficult, my prayer is simply, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."
At the end of each day, I cannot help but to reflect on all the choices I made — professionally and personally — and the outcomes that followed. I find the greatest sense of joy on the days that I listen to my heart, believed what I heard to be truth, and then exercised my unique skills and abilities to act on my heart's intuition.