When driving a car and concentrating only on what’s in the rearview mirror, instead of looking ahead, it’s a pretty good bet you’ll either run off the road, damage something, hit somebody or even worse. Reaching your destination requires constantly scanning for obstacles of all sizes and shapes immediately ahead, as well as potential dangers looming further on the horizon. This over-simplification is applicable to running any organization, as well. Too many businesses spend an inordinate amount of time fixating on their past accomplishments.
Like it or not, your customers, employees and investors (including your banks) want to know “What have you done for them today?” and “How do you plan to improve tomorrow?”
Remember these names: Blockbuster, the then ubiquitous video rental chain; E.F. Hutton & Co., the one-time mega stock brokerage firm; and the former airline behemoth, TWA. None of these three were particularly bad operators during their era, but most likely they were spending way too much time reading their press clippings instead of looking ahead to ensure they reached their next destination in one piece, and keeping their promises to their constituents.
It’s not much different from the people everyone knew from high school or college who, at reunions, no matter how much time has passed, exclusively muse about the good old days of yore, while failing to mention what they were currently doing. You likely stealthily took a few double takes at these same former prom king- and queen-types who, through the passing of time, added more than a few pounds and inches to their waistlines. Instead of working on staying trim, perhaps they spent their time reminiscing while snacking on too many chocolate bonbons.
On the flip side, there are companies such as Apple that asserted in a December 2015 “60 Minutes” segment that it was always focused on what it’s doing, not where it’s been.* That statement sums up why Apple has become one of the world’s largest and most successful organizations. At the very time the company launches its latest and greatest gizmo, it’s already working on an improved model not only for the next year but for the subsequent 24 months, as well.
Apple, however, is not bashful about celebrating its many past accomplishments, which provided the foundation for the company’s meteoric continuous growth. Reminders of the legacy of its late founder Steve Jobs are said to be ubiquitous on its Cupertino, California, campus, serving as inspiration and a reminder of the creative thinking that led to its unprecedented success.
It’s appropriate for a business to celebrate its past and its special anniversaries, proudly reflecting on accomplishments and the lessons learned along the way. If, however, you find yourself and your senior team too frequently referring to what you did back then, instead of what you plan to do now and in the future, it could be a sign that your company’s best days are behind it. The primary purpose for looking through a company’s rearview mirror is to ensure that its competitors aren’t gaining on them.
*Editor’s Note: The author is a current investor in Apple and actively trades derivatives in this stock.
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, with $20,000. During a 16-year span as CEO, he grew the company to 1,000 stores worldwide with sales of $5 billion.