Looking back on his extraordinary career of 35 years, NASCAR driving legend Richard Petty noted that during his first 20 years of racing, he had an excellent record of winning.  For example, he won the Daytona 500 seven times!

However, in the late 1970s, his career went into a decline from which it never recovered.  Other racing teams had gone high-tech, refining their cars with ever-more sophisticated engineering, while the Petty team was complacent and set in its ways.

“We’d be winning steadily for 20 years and decided we wouldn’t change,” Petty said.

harveyBryceRichard Petty, one of the greatest drivers in racing history, ended his career without a win in his last eight years.

Lesson learned:  Resistance to change and complacency can defeat any person or organization, no matter how talented.

Success is sweet, but it can quickly sour if the ingredients aren’t fresh.  I’ve seen plenty of businesses, large and small, rest on their laurels only to be lulled into a coma.  On the one hand, it’s tempting to go along with the tried and true – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But that’s an adage that needs to be tested constantly.  Times change, tastes change, technology changes.  People change.  And aren’t we all dependent on people for our business?

“Success is a lousy teacher.  It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose,” said Bill Gates.  That’s why success can be a breeding ground for complacency.  People and organizations become content, satisfied and comfortable – too comfortable – in the way they do things.  In short, things are going well and they don’t think there is a need to change.

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt said something similar:  “More people are ruined by victory, I imagine, than by defeat.”

Complacency is like a silent killer because it can happen to everyone.  It doesn’t matter how large or small the company or individual.  We have all battled complacency at some point.  The real trick is not to let it hang around for long.

“I often think we should have a Director of Corporate Insecurity because complacency is the Achilles heel of most companies,” said Sir John Bond, former chairman of HSBC Holdings.  “As my Chinese friends remind me, today you’re a cockerel (chicken), tomorrow you’re a feather duster.”

Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp., told a story about one of his company’s electronics facilities in Orlando, where “complacency started to infect one of our manufacturing processes.”

He said:  “Occasionally, parts were omitted from component kits prepared for assembly and inspection at another factory.  Each missing part disrupted the assembly process and frustrated the workers assembling the products.  I borrowed an idea from an automobile dealer in Dallas I had heard about.  The dealer received few complaints from customers because he gave them the home telephone numbers of the mechanics who worked on their cars.  I arranged for workers to include their names, work phone numbers, and self-addressed postcards in the kits they prepared.  Complaints dropped precipitously.”

All these examples describe corporate complacency.  But the problem also hits individuals.  In this job climate, sometimes it feels safer to stay put, even when your job or company isn’t meeting your goals or needs.  While security is a good thing, you also have to consider what it’s doing to your future.

Is your career on the right track?  Is it progressing as you planned?  If you’ve been in the same place for a while, think about these items:

  • Contentment.  The most important consideration when making career judgments is whether you’re happy.  Do you find your job satisfying?  Have you created a reasonable work/life balance?  If you feel good about going to work each day, you’ve probably found your niche.
  • Development.  Have you kept up your professional skills and credentials?  Does your position allow you the opportunity to grow and to capitalize on your strengths?  Being content isn’t sufficient reason to let your skills stagnate.  You should continue striving to enhance your marketability.
  • Environment.  Are you in a stable organization that will serve your needs well for the foreseeable future?  If your company is experiencing a dip in sales or market share, you should consider how those losses might affect your position in the coming months.

It’s fine to be comfortable.  It’s great to be content.  But when those translate to being complacent, it’s time to take stock – before your stock is worthless.


Mackay’s Moral:  When on the ladder of success, don’t step back to admire your work.

About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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