Entrepreneurs that are successful as sole proprietors are rare. Most often, success is the product of collaboration.
Recently, I caught myself reading a New York Post article, as I very infrequently do, about the rise and fall of Lady Gaga, who received a tepid welcome to her most recent album. The lack of “hits” produced from this endeavour has led to fears of layoffs and cuts at Interscope, her record label. I was struck by the similarities between her decline and the frustrations of several entrepreneurs I’ve known who have experienced similar challenges in rebounding from radical success.
Radical success, you say? What’s to rebound from?
A music executive quoted in the article states: “Artists have a lot of help on their first albums, and they’re open to a lot of help, and they are very smart collaborators and make great work.” In other words: early in her arc, Gaga was collaborative as she learned the ropes, largely trusting the judgment of others as she solicited their input.
The Post article discusses how the Lady Gaga that many of us know is really the product of a collaboration between visual artists, producers, engineers, fashion designers and stylists, managers, marketing strategists and a host of others—a crew that includes and is largely led by Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, the woman we plebes refer to as Lady Gaga. Packaged in the veneer of the meat dress, the 11-inch heels and the costumes crafted from Post-It-Notes, that Lady Gaga product is no different from a company. Germanotta is the CEO of Startup Gaga.
As entrepreneurs, we too are often Germanottas portrayed as the focal point of what is otherwise a collaborative effort among inspired and hard-working peers. When we’re successful, as often transpires, some leaders forget whose efforts propelled them there. And to some extent, this makes sense—we’ve learned a lot, watched specialists do their thing exceptionally well and taken lessons from the challenges encountered. In every empirical sense, we are better entrepreneurs and leaders than we were when we began.
Artists and entrepreneurs who can’t repeat successes are generally those who become convinced of their own greatness, losing sight of the team that helped them along. In the case of Lady Gaga, she recently tried to go it alone—losing her designer, ignoring her producers and generally trying to prove to others (and perhaps herself) that had she called the shots all along, and that her early success could have been even bigger.
Sound familiar? Entrepreneurs that fail the second time (and even again) after a big success often have become drunk on the accolades.
Top performers need to be heard. This includes top performers who aren’t necessarily the boss. Making a substantive contribution to success, regardless of where the accolades are ultimately directed, is a substantial part of what motivates such people to work hard and think critically. Being told they’re wrong at every turn? Not so much. When egos begin to run the decision process in an organization, those more comfortable with reasoned collaboration depart for loftier climes.
Invariably, they are replaced by sycophants and other yes-men who follow success rather than manifesting it. These second units usually fail to challenge leaders, bring more limited domain expertise and are reticent to offer the critical thinking that helped to make that first collaboration so successful.
“Time and again, they feel like they could have done it themselves, and if they had done it their way, it would have been even bigger,” says the producer quoted in the New York Post. “So, they jettison the people who helped them get where they are and hire people who are less powerful [and] who let them do what they want. I think that may be where Lady Gaga is.”
Lady Gaga’s new album, public persona and performances currently are being routinely panned as “tone deaf” and self-congratulatory. As she struggles to pull her new album through the doldrums of popular obscurity, she finds herself in a precarious position—heeding advice from no one and surrounded by people too afraid to offer constructive dissent, with her army of brilliant collaborators long since departed.
She’ll survive, I am sure.. but I can think of no worse position for a company’s chief executive.
Ian Andrew Bell is an entrepreneur and writer based in Vancouver. He does not listen to Lady Gaga. Or even Radio Gaga. This article appeared originally in Profit Magazine in 2014.