Arrogance and Complacency

By Scott Westerman

I rode Amtrak into Chicago this week to spend the day with Jana O’brien. We first met at Michigan State when I was spending to much time on the radio and she was building the fundamentals of a brilliant career in advertising research.

We contemplated our reflections in Cloudgate, that incredible sliver bean at Millennium Park, and she told me about her fascinating conversation with Don Keough, then president of Coca Cola. At age 81, he wrote “The Ten Commandments of Business Failure“, which postulates that “you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes”.

Two things mark the imminent decline of a brand, he said: Arrogance and complacency.

“It is very easy for people who are associated with great brands to be arrogant, ” he told Jana. “Because when you are associated with a great company and a great brand, the people just automatically endow you with a little bit more wisdom than you are entitled to have, and they give a little more, deference than you deserve.”

With regard to competitors, Keough says, “you hope that they are good, because they can keep the virus of complacency, out of your system. I used to say that if the Pepsi Cola Company didn’t exist, we’d just had to invent it, because we knew that there was always somebody breathing down our neck.”

That’s a mouthful.

As I rode the train back to East Lansing the irony set in. These same rails were at one time the conduits of progress and the main mode of transcontinental transport. They may still transport commerce across the land, but are a shadow of their former dominance.

Arrogance and complacency played a role.

Markets change, innovations abound. And yet, we often chain ourselves to our current reality long past the moment when we need to adjust.

Here is an organization at the top of it’s game, already planning their own demise… and renaissance.

What can we learn from American passenger railroads, from Michigan’s economic challenges, and from the gyrations in each of the companies with whom we temporarily share our personal brand?

1. Know thy customer – Our market is diverse and fickle, but we can discover what they need and what motivates them to act. We can determine what relationships are profitable, what relationships aren’t and build strategies and tactics accordingly. Most of all, we can realize that what they want tomorrow will be different than what they want today.

2. Serve thy customer – Remember always that careers, love affairs, business and life are all about relationships. Relationships are multidimensional and fluid. They require constant attention and nurturing. You must re-earn your stripes every day. You can’t bank a marriage on the Internet alone. And nothing beats face to face.

3. Anticipate – Arrogance and complacency are based on the assumption that you’re too big to fail and will always be the market leader. In truth, people are always re-evaluating the return on their investment. And whether its a cell phone company or a mortgage, there is a point where they will walk away. Develop a sixth sense for what your customers will want tomorrow. And do it today.

4. Innovate or die – Just as your customer’s needs change, so must you change to meet them. Markets saturate. New alternatives emerge. Your competition will likely change. And if you’re currently at the head of the pack, you’re in the cross hairs of everyone who is behind you. Expand your knowledge, add to your tool box. And don’t be afraid to disconnect your personal brand from the organization if its becoming arrogant and complacent.

None of this should frighten you. Change is a natural law that’s as old as time. And in the depths of the darkest night lies the promise of a new day.

So stay humble. As Einstein says, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

And do your best to embrace change. As your humble servant has so written, “They who can anticipate change and adjust are most likely to profit from it.”