Lee Iacocca, the former CEO of Chrysler, passed away on July 2nd, at age 94. Iacocca, who led Chrysler for 14 years was also known for his work on the original Ford Mustang, but it’s what he said about a much more humble car that tells you everything you need to know about the difference between success and failure.
In a January 1984 interview with the New York Times, Iacocca was asked how he had managed to turn around the struggling automaker, which had been on the brink of bankruptcy a few years earlier until it received $1.2 billion in loans from the federal government.
While you’d think that Iacocca would’ve responded with, “great cash flow management, well-managed cost cutting, phenomenal product development, and visionary leaders,” he said something far more succinct.
Iacocca’s response? “Luckily the K car made it.”
Chrysler was saved by luck.
You remember the K car right? It’s the famously box-shaped sedan that you picture when you think about cars from the 1980’s, unremarkable in basically every way, except that it literally saved Chrysler from extinction and spurred generations of the company’s future vehicles.
The K car wasn’t designed to save Chrysler, but it did. By luck.
In the same interview, Iacocca went on to say “how did we get from there to here? Good engineering and a little luck.”
As it turns out, luck is maybe the most important characteristics of success.
That’s not to discount the part about good engineering, but let’s be clear–Chrysler made a big bet when it completely re-imagined the way it would make automobiles. No amount of good engineering guarantees that a risk like that will pay off.
In fact, the good engineering is really just the baseline standard of “doing your job” if you’re an automaker. You’re supposed to get that part right, and if you do, you’ll be prepared when you happen to come across a little luck.
Like when your big bet pays off.
Luck isn’t a strategy.
The K car wasn’t some great feat of fashionable design. It was basic and reliable. It was also a dramatic change from the multiple-models and differing platforms that had bled Chrysler of cash. Instead, the K car was a front-wheel-drive platform with interchangeable parts allowing the company to produce a range of vehicles while keeping costs low.
Had it failed, the company most certainly would have as well. But it didn’t.
Chrysler sold over 3.5 million of them over the next 15 years and the various models represented some 50 percent of the company’s profits. That seems like a reasonable success.
In fact, the K car ended up making possible what is certainly Chrysler’s most successful vehicle ever, the minivan, which was based on the same platform.
Be ready when luck comes along.
The lesson here is that you can’t bottle up luck and uncork it whenever you need a success. So, stop looking for that lightning in a bottle. Instead, focus on good engineering–all the things you are supposed to do everyday–so that you can be in a position to capitalize when the smart risk you took starts to generate a reward.
That, after all, is what those six words are all about. Do your job and take a risk. Then, get to work so that when you get lucky and it pays off, you’re ready.
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