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How to succeed: Have a sense of purpose and don’t be an “asshole”

Three highly accomplished professionals shared their secrets for success before an audience of sports, technology, and business leaders.

How to succeed: Have a sense of purpose and don’t be an “asshole”
Left to right: Fast Company editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta, Jill Smoller, Fred Kofman, and Kirsten Green[Photo: Carlos Chavarría]

Failing as an entrepreneur is okay. But not having purpose means the chances of success are scarce.

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That was one of the chief takeaways on Monday as three business leaders spoke at Game On: Winning in Sports, Technology, and Business in San Jose.

Jill Smoller [Photo: Carlos Chavarría]
Though the panel wasn’t strictly about sports, there was definitely something to be learned from the lessons of athletes like tennis superstar Serena Williams. Audiences “want to know that somebody gives a shit out there, and that they care,” said Jill Smoller, a partner at William Morris Endeavor, and Williams’s agent. “They want to know that you’re bleeding out on the court.”

Fred Kofman, a business consultant and author, doubled down on Smoller’s sentiment, noting that for entrepreneurs, talent is important, but it’s secondary to having a clear purpose–something that can give them strength even as they confront adversity. “Without a reason to get through . . . failure,” Kofman said, “a reason that is bigger than ‘I just want to succeed.’ You [gain] resilience based on higher purpose.”

Kofman, Smoller, and Forerunner Ventures founder and managing partner Kirsten Green shared their insights from decades in the trenches of business and entrepreneurship. They kept coming back to the concept of purpose as a key ingredient to overcoming the kind of adversity that foils less-focused people.

Kirsten Green [Photo: Carlos Chavarría]
As Green put it, anyone starting a business generally faces crazy headwinds, and she argued that there are always going to be more odds against you than in your favor. In order to overcome those odds, you need to have passion, purpose, and conviction, and if you do, you can tap into them when things get tough. She said she can always count on two elements when looking at the trajectory of a new business: Things aren’t going to turn out the way they planned, and the going will be difficult. The question she asks when considering whether to go into business with someone is, “Do I want to be in the boat with this person when it gets hard?”

For Kofman, the key is being ready to make moves, even when things do go haywire, as they always will. He said he bases his personal life philosophy and his business coaching on the principle of what he calls conditional responsibility. That is, he says, “No matter what happens, life is playing chess with you, and it’s your move. You have to respond. Even not playing is a response. You can deny that and pretend you’re a victim, [but] 99% of what is happening is out of your control” and the best thing you can do is act purposefully on the 1% you can control.

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Being ready for what comes next, and knowing what you’ll do regardless of how things go, is also vital. Smoller says she goes into any situation thinking about the worst-case scenario and planning ahead about what she’ll do if things blow up. Knowing how to do that, and what levers to push to navigate such situations, helps her “set the playing field to help the people I’m working with be the best they can be [and] have the cleanest, clearest playing field.”

Fred Kofman [Photo: Carlos Chavarría]
Another key element of success is refusing to shy away from the difficult thing. And that can mean speaking hard truths to clients or partners, no matter the consequences. After all, they deserve that from you. “You have to be willing to say what’s necessary,” Smoller argues, “even if it means getting fired . . . You have to have the conversation before the train hits the wall.”

That philosophy dovetails with another of Smoller’s: the way to tell someone’s makeup, she says, is to examine how they function when things are falling apart.

Choosing to only do business with people who keep it together and whom you trust in such situations is likely to lead to more success. Further, you want to work with people who have the same ethical code as you, Smoller says. “You don’t have to be an asshole to be successful,” she says, “and I wish that would come into play a little more.”

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About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications

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