The Adversity Paradox: An Unconventional Guide to Achieving Uncommon Business Success

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9780312598792: The Adversity Paradox: An Unconventional Guide to Achieving Uncommon Business Success

Obstacles and setbacks are an inevitable part of life, especially in today's harsh and volatile economy. How can you take the very experiences that could stall or tumble a career and use them to build uncommon success?

Business people like Pete Dawkins, Harvey Mackay, Doris Christopher, and Walter Scott Jr. know that the answer to this question lies in firsthand knowledge of "The Adversity Paradox": working to overcome humble beginnings, lack of knowledge, unexpected setbacks, or any manner of misfortune can be the foundational step in a path to incredible achievement.

While many motivational business books promise easy access to prosperity and power by way of secret insight, quick and easy steps, or "insider tips" that are dubious at best, this book tells it straight. It offers candid accounts from those who have been tested by adversity and illustrates how they have put their misfortunes to good use by gaining business savvy from them.

The paths to success are diverse, but The Adversity Paradox identifies patterns that anyone can study and learn from.

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About the Author:

J. Barry Griswell is former chairman and chief executive officer of the Principal Financial Group. He is a 2003 recipient of the Horatio Alger Award, given to individuals who have achieved great success while overcoming difficult backgrounds. He is president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines.

Bob Jennings is president of Lean Management Group, a consulting company focused on senior management methods and execution.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One


What Is Business Savvy, Anyway?


Business savvy is not something you're born with, nor is it something you inherit. But as we believe it is the key to business success, we start with the end in mind, defining what it is.


Everyone you'll meet in The Adversity Paradox possesses phenomenal business savvy, and the spark that first set it off was a firsthand encounter in overcoming some sort of adversity. But what exactly is business savvy? The above definitions spell it out, but more simply, you might call it "business sense" or "business instinct," and you might say that those who possess it are "business smart" or just plain "successful." But we like "business savvy" because it neatly describes both the people who possess it and the acquired competencies they gain by befriending adversity. So before we talk about the adversity paradox, we're going to devote some time to examining business savvy in detail. This discussion will be the foundation for all that follows: a close look at how a wide variety of people overcame adversity and achieved great success, and how the lessons they learned from their experiences can help you do the same.


So how much business savvy would you say you have? Enough to purchase an insolvent company with a dozen employees and grow it to a $100 million business, and pen some of the bestselling business books of all time? Enough to, despite having no business background whatsoever, start a business in your basement that goes on to become a household name, with sales of more than $700 million? Do you have enough business savvy to arrive in a new country with very little money, do whatever it takes to put yourself through school, and within a handful of years rise from an entry-level position to the top spot in the company? How about the kind of business savvy that takes you from an early life marked by poverty, a broken home, struggles with learning, and the lowest of expectations all the way to the executive suite? Or the kind of business savvy that enables you to carry an aviation company through the storm after 9/11, or the kind that makes it possible to pick yourself up after the sudden separation from a decades-long career and emerge with an even stronger and more fulfilling purpose? No matter what type of adversity life throws at you, do you have the wherewithal to resist giving up and to pursue your passion-driven goals all the way to their successful completion?


Maybe not yet, but this book will introduce you to those who've acquired the insight the adversity paradox has to teach: Working to overcome humble beginnings, lack of knowledge, major unexpected setbacks, or any manner of misfortune that life throws your way may be the greatest tool for building business savvy you'll ever possess. The business leaders you'll meet in The Adversity Paradox have overcome all manner of adversity and used their experiences to create the business savvy that enabled them to attain unmatched levels of success. In short, they've found a way to befriend adversity and put it to work for them. They've turned failure on its head and have built successful careers and personal lives upon the very experiences most people work assiduously to avoid.


Here's the thing about adversity: If you can make it your friend, you may find yourself in one of the most powerful and transformative situations that life has to offer. Of course we'd never advocate going out and seeking difficult circumstances in order to develop yourself or further your career, but the fact is setbacks are going to happen—certainly in the business world. An investment can go bad. An important employee or partner could desert you. A counted-on sale may go to your biggest competitor. An important deal could go upside down on you. But it's in how one deals with these unexpected misfortunes that separates those who fail from those who attain the top levels of success.


Perhaps it's a sad fact, but success absolutely does not provide the impetus for improvement that adversity does. Say you just sold a new client, won a promotion or a pay raise, or gave a presentation that drew rave reviews. What's the result? High fives around the office, a pat on the back at home, or a toast over dinner. Sure, you should enjoy the well-deserved accolades, but be wary: In the face of success we can become complacent. It's far too easy to become too satisfied with our current performance and get a little lax on improving.


In contrast, what happens after a failure or some personal heartache? Ideally we immediately analyze the situation to see what went wrong and we focus on what we could've done differently. No one likes to go through adversity, but faced with the right attitude, a difficult setback can be one of our most powerful catalysts for change. Adversity can provide the motivation and the determination to sharpen our skills and regain our focus, and that in turn has a direct positive impact on the creation of business savvy.


If there's one thing we'd like you to take away from this book, it's the certainty that you always have a choice. No matter how terrible the setback—and in this book you'll meet some people who overcame "impossible" situations—you can make the choice to lie back and let adversity consume you, or you can face the situation head-on and work to make adversity your friend. Befriending adversity means not shying from it, but learning from it. It means not letting it defeat you, but laboring to overcome it, and even better, using what you learn from the experience to improve yourself. Those who've been tested by the fires of adversity and have passed the test emerge stronger, smarter, and savvier.


Oddly enough, though the stories in this book are quite diverse, the attributes evinced by these business-savvy individuals are remarkably similar. That's because they've made certain core competencies—ones that consistently get superior results—part of their daily practice. Pause for a moment and think of the most successful business people you know. We'll bet they comprehend things quickly and are able to synthesize vast amounts of data and drill down to the salient points. They're naturally intuitive and can size up situations and people virtually on the spot through their ability to empathize with others' positions. They're resourceful and innovative in matters both practical and abstract, even visionary. They're knowledgeable and perceptive, and if they discover an information void, they act quickly to fill it. They act promptly but judiciously on information, and they exhibit wisdom and sound reasoning in matters large and small.


But for people with business savvy borne of adversity, there is so much more to the story. The business leaders who've benefited from the adversity paradox are the ones who use the diagnostic skill of introspection to conduct honest self-assessments so as to make trajectory adjustments whenever necessary. They're the employees with outstanding personal values—values they never check at the company door. They're the ones with a superior work character, who often arrive at the office before everyone else and leave later—and love it. For them a job is never just the five days standing in the way of the weekend or the means to an easy retirement. These folks have found a purpose they're passionate about and have found a way to take the work out of work. They're the employees who nurture a thirst for knowledge that keeps them constantly abreast of the ever-changing world of business.


Given such commendable core competencies and practices, it isn't surprising that those who've learned their lessons the hard way often go on to achieve enormous wealth as a result of their prodigious business savvy. Who comes to mind when you think of incredibly successful businesspeople? Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Wayne Huizenga, Oprah Winfrey? They're all good answers, and in fact every one of them has been listed in Forbes's March 2008 issue on billionaires. Winfrey's experiences of adversity are the best known: A female minority from an underprivileged background, she has become one of the country's most successful and admired businesspeople, with assets now reaching $2.5 billion. Like Winfrey, you can bet that every one of these business-savvy individuals has encountered adversity, overcome it, and used what they learned to maximize their business savvy. Adversity doesn't defeat them but propels them to succeed.


Now, it's true that most of us will never achieve the level of success and fame that Oprah Winfrey and Warren Buffett have, but the good news about the adversity paradox is that anyone—yes, anyone—can learn how overcoming his or her own personal misfortunes can improve business savvy. This book is for the rest of us—the young worker with his foot on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, the small business owner, the midlevel manager, or even the CEO who's interested in raising his overall performance.


So let's meet a man whose life is an example par excellence of the adversity paradox in action. Like yours, his may not be a household name, but the kind of success he's achieved, both in business and in his personal life, is something to which we all aspire. Like many in America, he was an immigrant with many strikes against him. But like a select few, he overcame the adversities life dealt him and built his success upon the very misfortunes that stop most in their tracks.


John Pappajohn


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