A few years ago, I was flipping channels between a ball game and News Hour on PBS. Between fastballs and curve balls, I caught parts of an interview with the CEO of Hyundai or Samsung, can’t recall exactly and don’t quite remember his name either. But he was asked “how long into the future his company’s strategic plan stretched?” Without missing a beat, he replied “200 years”. This curve ball made me forget all about the ball game.
Worse, his answer kept me awake for a few nights. Hate it when that happens!
But how could he possibly have a two-hundred-year strategic plan? My first instinct was to think the man insane. Was he planning to live for 200 years? I mean what role could one person play in a plan that was to unfold over 200 years? What would his job be? I can’t think past next Tuesday and most organizations can’t see past the current quarter.
A couple of days later, it struck me at about two in the morning. Hate it when that happens too, keeps me awake longer.
His job was to set it up for the next CEO and pass on a company that was ready for what came next. The present was not about building his own legacy and only doing what produced success he could claim as his.
I realized that this CEO did not come to work thinking about himself. He came to work thinking about those who would follow. His legacy was completely bound in the foundation he would build for his successors.
It was a humbling thought. It made me realize that success could not be measured by what we do today, but what endures beyond us. If we do the right things, we may never enjoy or benefit from the results of our efforts or get any credit for what became possible due to our work today. And that was ok.
In his own company’s case, looking ahead 200 years meant the CEO was willing to accept short term decisions that would yield benefits much later. His decisions may even not even make sense in the short term but he would make them because it was ok if the benefits would be enjoyed by others who followed and if his own contribution may be lost amongst the pages of history.
Reality is this CEO won’t be around to see the outcomes that will be realized well in the future. But he was willing to do his part today to support those who would take the baton from him. If successive CEO’s took the same approach, his company would be just fine even 200 years into the future, a future he would never see.
Whether it was Hyundai or Samsung, does not much matter. Both companies are at the top of their game. From their start as much maligned Korean companies, they are both well respected global giants. I imagine the attitude of that particular CEO had something to do with that.
Whoever this CEO was, I’d like to thank him for the sleepless nights and for disabusing me of the notion that it’s all about me. Thanks to you, I keep worrying about 200 years rather than next Tuesday.
Should have kept the TV tuned to baseball. Wonder who won the game anyways?
Image courtesy of t3.com