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Aldrich Interdisciplinary Lecture 2003

Students near clock tower

"Beyond Skills: The Road to Sustainable Success"

by Ms. Wanda M. Dorosz
February 26, 2003

Hello, my name is Wanda Dorosz. I am truly honoured to be your keynote speaker at this year's Aldrich Interdisciplinary Lecture. While I am humbled to address such an elite audience, I believe Chet Jablonski invited me to share some of my "rough and tumble" adventures amongst the highly successful, for a reason.

The theme of my address tonight is:


Learning Matters!
Ideas Matter!
Experience Matters! All should be a priori conditions to success.

However, in my experience amongst the elite of a meritocratous world, success is not an incremental application (i.e. merely measurable) applications of good ideas, great skills, or learned leadership behaviors per se. My experience suggests that sustainable success is beyond skills, in a very different world.

Psychologists would tackle the "beyond skills" (or incrementalism questions) as "When fight? When flight?".

Warriors would resolve the questions as when to advance, and when interestingly, to retreat --not should you retreat.

Philosophers would probe the question as "When courage?", "When serenity?".

In all three perspectives, there is an acknowledgement that succeeding is something extra-ordinary.

Let me begin by sharing with you what I've done for the past 20 years. As a growth capital investor I have reviewed over 12,000 business plans, invested in hundreds of growth companies, raised over a billion dollars of equity and worked in over 20 countries. I have sat, over the years on 75 Boards of Directors ranging from private corporations to public corporations, from multinationals to not-for-profit's, and also Crown Corporations. In short, what I've done is worked with that part of the human bell curve that wants to excel.


Those 20 years have left me with strong observations of who succeeds sustainably and why.


A well know study that arose in the Second World War, originated in observing fighter pilots and their percentage of "kills". A little gruesome, but what was observed was totally fascinating. 5% of the pilots did 90% of the "kills". The powers that be, sought to replicate that success by searching for correlated factors amongst their pilots. To their horror, they found none - not race, religion, education, temperament, socioeconomic class, age, size, gender, even ranking in the family sibling tree. Nationality didn't correlate. Nothing did, with "perhaps" a hint of a common value set of meritocracy.

So, it would seem that …..

Talent alone isn't enough. Education although essential, it too isn't enough. Effort is important, but the world is filled with people who work hard. Remember, what we're talking about here is sustainable success, whether it be in business, sport, education, whatever. So, to be sustainable, even luck can't be relied upon as a success factor.

Let me make an even rasher statement. I believe that the much touted factor called drive or ambition is over rated as a success factor. There are many corpses of burnt out "driver - drivers". I believe that as important as all these factors are to success, sustainable success has darker beginnings.

Let me explain. Nature is elegant. Pain, as crude as it is, tells the body at least 3 things. It tells the body that something is wrong. It tells the body where it is wrong (i.e I have a headache). Lastly, the degree of pain tells the body how wrong the wrong is. Yet there's a fourth message that is the most important. Pain tells you that if you can live with the pain, you're probably OK.

There is an equivalency to the "body and pain" vis a vis emotional well being. That equivalency is frustration. If you can live with frustration, you won't change. If you can't, you will change. The "bias to action", much lauded in the successful, is actually in my experience founded in pain. But this too needs a qualifier.

A practical example of how pain begins the cycle of success lies in body-building. My brother-in-law is a three time Olympian athlete. I've spent endless hours with him asking him about how to succeed athletically at his level. By accident one day, I asked him about how body-building works, "Oh", he said, "that's easy, athletes deliberately over train, and hurt themselves. Not too much. Just enough. They then deliberately stop to heal, because they know that nature in healing will over compensate (i.e. "just in case" ….).

So you start at 0, retreat to (-1), and heal to +1. The +1 becomes the new 0 and the cycle repeats. History is filled with people who consciously took the negatives in their lives to a new net gain.

Once pain compels you out of stasis, you need to ride with it. Trust it. The Romans credo was "Fortune Favours The Bold". My brother says "No Guts, No Glory".

BUT, BUT, you say, many bold people are foolhardy, "unconsidered" you say. Here the notion of retreat becomes essential, in my observation of the successful. Life is not straight-line, you must learn to withdraw. But understand that retreat implies by definition a "try again". Retreat is not surrender. Nor is retreat "playing it safe". Newfoundlanders instinctively know that.

A ship in harbour is safe, but that's not what a ship is built for. A ship is built for the high seas.

OK, you say, I buy "advance and retreat" as being important to the success factor, but when? How do you know when to retreat?

I believe, that the ability of successful people to know when to advance and when to retreat (re, FIGHT or FLIGHT?) lies in their personal ability to embrace contradiction, without trying to resolve the contradiction, at least not immediately. In our company, we look for people who simultaneously have their head in the clouds and their feet on the ground.

Albert Einstein said it more eloquently, "Life is not a problem to be solved. Life is a mystery to be experienced".


Let me share with you the dramatic work done in the 60's by the CLUB OR ROME.

The vast majority of mankind's day to day consciousness relates to matters that are only 30 days hence (i.e. the rent, the mortgage, may pay cheque) and relate to geographies that are only five (5) miles from their place of birth.

Successful people have the ability to constantly move up and down the ladder of abstraction. Winston Churchill was brilliant at it. That's what I mean by living with a seeming contradiction, without trying to reconcile it into one space, one time.

A gritty World War II example of contradiction comes out of aircraft carrier pilots.

(Simultaneous full throttle and full brakes). This was a time of no "Short Take Off and Land" aircraft STOL.

Again, you mutter - YIKES!!. Are there no safety factors that beget success?

Of course there is, let me describe the single most powerful idea that I've applied in my business career - B.A.T.N.A.

BATNA is an acronym for what is your "best alternative to a no or negative answer? A famous study done at Wharton Business School, observed over several hundred different types of negotiations between people in conflict (i.e. no agreement), they found that regardless of relative strengths of any particular party's position, whether the negotiation be between warring nations, companies, management and union, husband and wife, parent and child, whatever, where a particular party had determined beforehand what was their BANTA, they disproportionately succeeded (i.e KNOW YOUR SECOND BEST POSITION, NOT WORST CASE POSITION).

BATNA certainly removes wobble in conflict. Interestingly, one of the most common sources of second best alternatives that the study found was self help. Ben Franklin, thank you!

I've developed that BATNA idea into my own observations of the successful.

Successful People have good habits. Stephen Coney made himself rich talking about the 7 habits of the highly successful.

In the past 26 years of my career, I've observed that sustainably successful people share the following 3 habits:

  1. They finish what they start;
  2. They do what they say;
  3. They pay their bills.

There 3 simple notions are powerful platforms to build upon. Yet these too aren't enough. There is more.

Successful People also have great advisors.

The Caesars had the Roman Senate, Jesus his disciples, Henry VIII his Thomas Moore. Why? I purport that successful people, especially leaders, have advisors around them because they are success enhancers, although not for the obvious reason of the quality of their advice. No, great advisors do at least 2 things for successful people.

  1. In crisis, advisors reinforce the message of "light not heat". Light not heat means putting logic before emotion. It means pacing your organization, slowing it down, calming it down, all enormously important, especially in crisis.
  2. More importantly, advisors remove the wobble of self doubt. An Eighteenth Century French poet named Novalis said it this way, "The moment another soul will believe in you, your convictions gain infinitely".

Finally, successful People are also ferocious.

Yes. You nod, but I observe them to be ferocious about an unexpected thing. They are ferocious about their sense of serenity. Successful people demand time and space to be quiet, to be still. Every day, they find and defend a time that has no e-mails, no teleconference, no television, not even books where the subject "winds them up". But critically, this is not a cliché message about pacing yourself. Ironically, this is a much darker topic. I did chose the word ferocious for a reason.

I do believe that ferocity about serenity is instinctive in successful people. One brilliant writer told me he imagined "beauty not as a delicate being but as a ferocious lion". How else he reasoned, could you balance off life's mediocrity, it's waste and it's cruelties, in life at the margin, which is where excellence can take you.

Ultimately though, sustainable success is about being able to imagine greatness, both for yourself, and for others.

"Let me describe for you, my trip to Pergamon, Turkey, an ancient city founded by Alexander the Great on an acropolis near Troy"………………

So now you know that I've tricked you. While rambling on about "sustainable success" I've really led you to the prospect of "those who would-be-great".

In that regard, I want to refer to the words of two dead white male poets. The first is William Shakespeare. Shakespeare "trumpeted".

"Be not afraid of greatness. For some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them".

In another time, Shakespeare's admonishments would be enough. But, we live in a much more broken world. So I'd like to quote a more somber reflection of greatness. In the words of William Makepeace Thackeray:

"To endure is greater than to dare. To tire out hostile fortune, to be daunted by no difficulty, to keep heart when all have lost it; who can say this is not greatness".

I began my talk this evening with a paradox. Let me close with another, in the words of what is daily prayer for me.

"God, grant me the courage to change the things I can; the serenity to accept the things I can't; and the wisdom to know the difference".

Thank you so much for having me this evening.