Being in the right place at the right time can make or break careers and companies.
A classic old film comedy, Being There, stars the late Peter Sellers as dimwitted Chance the Gardener, who tended the grounds for a wealthy elderly gentleman. After the gentleman dies and Chance dons his clothes, Chance is swept into high VIP circles by a series of accidents. His name is misheard as “Chauncey Gardiner,” and his mumbled observations on gardens are taken as wise strategic metaphor. He is soon a major national advisor. And just because he is there, opportunities proliferate; he is chosen to head a significant company. The final scene shows him with one foot almost at a pond, umbrella held high, presumably about to walk on water.
This is an argument for the proposition, also tongue-in-cheek, that 80 percent of success in life is just showing up. It’s hard to catch the opportunities without being there. That’s why showing up is the first key to successful leadership of change (of course, there are several more, as I indicated in a recent TEDx talk).
For companies, being there means having a presence on the ground to deeply understand places that hold resources important for the future. Kodak might have been a different, much greater company now, dominating digital imaging the way it had dominated film-based photography, if the company had “been there” in Silicon Valley soaking up the sunshine of digital creativity, hiring a new Internet-savvy generation, and connecting with entrepreneurs inventing the future. Instead, the firm remained firmly in Rochester, New York, capital of an older technology era.
In contrast, Reuters, an information-provider that was also threatened with Internet-caused obsolescence, reluctantly allowed a key staff member to move from London to California, where he showed up in the places that emerging talent hung out, including the Stanford student cafeteria. By being there, he was in preferred position to invest in many star start-ups (which could pick and choose their investors) and make friends with potential partners. He also brought in global executives to see it for themselves, which accelerated decisions about changes in the parent company. Two years later, connections solidified, he could return to London and make occasional return visits. Five years later, the CEO declared that Reuters had transformed into an Internet company.
It’s an apparent paradox: The declining significance of place is associated with the rising significance of place. Technology helps us connect with anyone anywhere nearly instantaneously, crowdsource ideas, and work on virtual teams without ever being in the same place. But being in the same place at the right time means being able to make serendipitous connections, and even to get mistaken for someone important. That’s why executives trek up the snowy Swiss mountains to Davos, or why art dealers flock to Art Basel and Art Basel Miami. Furthermore, showing up and being there has an emotional appeal even when it lacks instrumental value. People pay a premium to attend live sports and entertainment that they could get free on TV or the Web.
Showing up in a particular place is also critical to the new globalization, which increasingly means localization. Instead of inflicting one-size-fits-all standardized universal products on every market, companies realize the importance of adapting to local customs and tastes and learning from them. At Procter & Gamble Brazil, this is referred to as “tropicalizing” P&G products designed at Cincinnati headquarters. It is part of a new logic that has moved brand teams out of Cincinnati to many other locations.
Some companies that seek to enter new international markets do the philanthropic equivalent of showing up. Even before establishing a commercial presence, they contribute to communities in ways that give them access to the people and their needs, not to mention goodwill with decision-makers.
In addition to providing knowledge and relationships, showing up is a sign of caring. Coming in person is always more meaningful than doing a video or sending a note. When IBM’s former CEO announced the company’s ten-year innovation priorities by standing in Beijing, he signaled the importance IBM gave to China — even though most of those attending in person saw him on a screen anyway.
How much on-the-ground presence is needed, and for what kinds of activities? This is still an open question, despite many technological wonders, such as the digital glove I saw years ago at the MIT Media Lab that transmitted a handshake or the wraparound 360-degree virtual tours on screens. That frontier will be explored by going to the places where people are inventing the tools.
By all means, work remotely if you can. But never forget that chance plays a role in finding opportunities, just as it did for Chance the Gardener. It’s important to be in the right place, preferably at the right time. And it’s impossible to get started without first showing up.
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