Success to the Successful: Are You Perpetuating Privilege?


Let’s say Bill and Janet are equally qualified product managers who are each given a critical product development project.

Bill is a good guy, a smart guy and a solid guy. You’ve known guys like Bill your whole life. You know you can count on him. You’re very confident in his abilities.

Maybe Janet is a person of colour. Maybe she’s a recent immigrant. Maybe they’re non-binary. Maybe she didn’t go to the same school as you. Maybe she came from a different socio-economic background than you did. Maybe she practices a different religion than you do. Maybe she’s an atheist and you are not. And maybe, deep down, you have some ideas about what those things represent. And maybe, this leaves you less confident in her abilities.

Janet’s team is solid, but their product is breaking new ground for the company, so they experience some early delays as they perfect their technology. Bill’s team is building on existing technology and gets off to a quick start. At their first progress report to the board, Bill really shines. Everyone gets super excited about his product. You knew Bill would do a great job, and he is! Janet’s report is encouraging, but she and her team still have a long way to go. You’re still not quite sure about her.

Soon, Bill hits a snag and requests more resources. Because his product seems to be a winner, you redirect a few developers and a designer from Janet’s team to his. Janet’s team was just hitting its stride, but the loss of key members has slowed them down once again.

Bill launches two weeks ahead of schedule. He secures additional marketing dollars to give his product a big push. Janet’s progress is steady, and her minimum viable product is testing well with beta users. Her financial models are projecting big numbers in Q4. Meanwhile, Bill’s product is already in market. His targets are modest, but he’s already hitting them in Q1. More marketing dollars are directed to him, and away from Janet even though long-term, her product has the potential to be truly disruptive in their industry. By the time Janet launches, there’s only enough money for a lackluster marketing effort. No one is excited.

Bill is assigned another important project and knocks it out of the park. Everyone loves Bill. He’s learning and improving with each new launch. Janet, not so much. She gets less important work and as a result, her skillset doesn’t grow as quickly as Bill’s.

Soon, Bill is a far better product manager than Janet, and the contrast is obvious. Rather than engaging in an uncomfortable conversation with Janet in which you build an understanding of her and the issues she’s facing, you simply decide that she can’t scale (one of Silicon Valley’s favorite put-downs). Janet’s disruptive product is killed, and she is let go not long after.

According to System Leadership Theory, this pattern is called Success to the Successful. And it is by far, the system trap I hate the most. It’s insidious, systemic and to most people, conveniently invisible. But above all, it’s lazy.

In the Success to the Successful trap, those who are successful are granted additional advantages that give them the ability to compete more effectively and therefore win more easily in the future. Sound unfair? Well it is. And it’s everywhere.

We see it in education when the amount of funding received by a public school is determined by the amount of property taxes collected in its catchment area. By default, poorer neighborhoods have poorer schools, making it difficult for the kids from those areas to make it into university. Speaking of universities, many have “legacy” admissions where the children of alumni are prioritized for admission, regardless of their academic accomplishments.

There are further advantages for children of privileged backgrounds. Research has found that grade inflation is more prevalent in wealthier schools than in poorer districts. And it makes sense. If your mom is a lawyer who is highly skilled in the arts of influence and negotiation, she’s going to have a lot more success when pressuring the teacher than will a mom who works as a grocery store cashier.

Once out of school, the advantages for wealthier people continue. In their book The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged, Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman show how due to a series of “hidden mechanisms”, those who grew up wealthier are better prepared for success in elite professions such as media, architecture and acting. Those from wealthier backgrounds have access to a larger, more influential network for professional advancement, have a better understanding of professional norms and behaviors and have access to their parents’ money to fund their ambitions. If mom and dad are paying your rent, it’s a lot easier to take that internship in London or New York that will lead to a more prestigious position down the road.

We're all supposed to know this stuff. Yet why does it keep happening?

And, the problem goes beyond the inherent unfairness of it all. It’s also the fact that organizations that fall into the Success to the Successful trap suffer for it. They wind up with the same ideas, the same strategies, the same people, the same technology, the same measurements and the same tools. They become unimaginative, closed minded and slaves to the past. Those who think differently or approach things in unorthodox ways become disenchanted and demotivated. Opportunities for change and innovation are lost.

What makes me the craziest about the Success to the Successful trap is the way most people are entirely blind to it. Take a look at your organization. If everyone is the same color, or the same gender identity, or went to the same school, or have the same mother tongue, or the same physical abilities, you and your senior leaders have some thinking to do.

Success to the Successful isn’t leadership. It is the very definition of privilege.

Next week, we’ll talk about how leaders can ensure they’re not perpetuating this privilege in their organizations.

Hey there! If you’re digging this System Leadership Theory stuff, you can read more about Success to the Successful and other system traps in my book, The Unstuck Leader, available in print and for Kindle on Amazon.

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The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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