If you’re not always improving you’re going backwards

On Tuesday morning I went to see legendary VC Sir Mike Moritz give a talk to launch his new book Leading – thank you Felix for inviting me. Sir Mike has spent time with lots of very successful business leaders over the years and has recently been asking himself what separates those who’s companies stay at the top of their field for multiple decades and those who’s success is more fleeting.

One thing stood out for him above all other factors.

Leaders of companies with enduring success have a relentless thirst for continual improvement. They are restless and never satisfied.

He said modern day tech company leaders Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg have this quality in spades. Older leaders he name checked included Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch. I’m currently reading a biography of Elon Musk, and he has this attitude too.

Sir Mike also said that Sir Alex Ferguson has a drive to make things better all the time, and that’s what kept him on top at Manchester United for 28 years (Leading tells its story through the story of Sir Alex’s success).

My initial reaction to the idea that continuous improvement begets enduring success was ‘makes sense, companies need to reinvent themselves if they want to stay on top for multiple decades and continuous improvement will do that for you’, but that underplays the importance of the point. An insatiable desire for everything to be the best it can be is key to getting to the top, not just to staying there.

Moreover, as the world changes faster and faster any other attitude is doomed to failure. A solution that’s perfect for today won’t stay perfect for very long, so unless you want to be usurped by someone who finds the solution that’s perfect for tomorrow, you’d better be continuously improving.

In the early days of a startup nothing is perfect, and oftentimes most everything is far from it. Customers might love the core product functionality, but there’s constant firefighting behind the scenes to keep everything working, make more sales, hire more people, raise more money etc. etc. Once again, relentless continuous improvement is the best route to success. Even when things are working really well the best founders aren’t happy – they’re asking themselves questions like ‘how can I grow faster?’, ‘how can I be more profitable?’ and ‘how can I make my customers love us more?’.

This may not need saying, but whilst a relentless desire for continuous improvement is a winning attitude, it is not sufficient on it’s own. It needs to be accompanied by strong leadership skills more generally. Some founders kill their companies by pushing them too hard. That almost happened to Elon Musk’s first two businesses.