Having observed and experienced various degrees of success and failures for nearly 40 years I have tried to distill what is critical to success and what seems common to failures.

I have yet to find any simplistic secrets to success.  Everything that many business writers claim to be critical to success are often aspects that can also be seen in many failures.  Given that so many very bright have failed in a big way, it certainly isn’t intelligence.  And while many of the successful credit hard work, we all know there are many hard working people who never experience success.  Big successes and big failures seem to go hand in hand. That leaves flexibility and persistence  as my top two choices. Flexibility often means keeping debt low. And luck can never be ruled out.

But it is far easier to see what is common to failures in business.  Once you get beyond the really bad ideas and too much debt, the debate gets less illuminating.  It can be poor capitalization; the business owner just did not have enough money to consider the cash requirement of a growing business.

I have also contended that many small business people grossly underestimated the cost of the administration end of their business.  Complex tax codes and onerous regulations have made the costs of doing all those things other than buying and selling your product and service ever more expensive.  Little mistakes in administrative tasks can cost a business a fortune. Many new small business people are stunned at the unexpected costs of administering a business.

But the most underestimated cost in my experience is raw incompetence, not necessarily in your business staff but in all of the auxiliary people you deal with.

It is the health insurance company that mistakenly sends out notices to all of your employees that their health insurance has been canceled  when all you have done is modify the plan.  It is their seeming inability to correct this problem three months later.

It is the phone company that kills all of your phone lines by executing an order three weeks before the contract to install a new system dictated.  It is the credit card company that approved a suspicious charge that you brought to their attention without contacting the card holder and then stuck you with the charge back based on some fine print in the credit card agreement.

Or it is the credit card company that made 170 entries to correct the four fraudulent charges and then insists that the statement balance you are staring at was correct.  It wasn’t- you gave me $285 too much, but thanks.

Or maybe it was the charge that you never authorized that it took two hours on four phone calls to correct; half of it listening to a recorded message telling you how important your phone call was.

There are times when I think that if everybody just did what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it that we could all work just two days a week and make twice the money.  We spend as much time fixing and responding to mistakes and screw ups as we do actually accomplishing productive work.

This is not to contend that we should expect to live in an error free world. That is neither realistic nor affordable.  I can only ask that errors be faced and fixed quickly.  Nor do I think such incompetence stems from lazy workers. More often it comes from management and systems that treat workers like cogs instead of caring individuals.  But often it is managers that spend more time talking about how great their team is than fixing the problems that irritate customers.

It often stems from a cowardly lack of clarity.  Ideas are discussed in general terms without getting specific as to what is truly expected. Tasks are assigned without deadlines. Disappointment inevitably follows unclear expectations.

But this cost of incompetence Is not just from doing the right thing poorly; it can be even more serious if it is the wrong thing done perfectly.   We are a country addicted to speed but we can save a lot of time by doing less …. But doing it better.

But in a world where incompetence is just too common, competent people stand out from the pack.  It could be the lawyer who clearly is thinking through a case thoroughly and finds a thread that seals a case.  It can be the administrator that understands the organization so well that they can fix any problem caused by her company in just moments, or the waitress who listened when you spoke of a gluten intolerance and went across the street to Whole Foods and got you a gluten free desert (before you even ordered desert) while you ate your main course.  (Karen Silverman at the Capital Grille in Atlanta).

But while competence is often displayed by small extraordinary acts, it is most common and most valuable when it avoids the needs for any extraordinary acts.  It comes from very worker just giving a damn about their job and their customer.  It comes from an understanding of the consequences of their actions and inactions, thinking at least two steps ahead.  Such a worker can make up for their clueless boss and a nearly dysfunctional system.

The best thing a leader can do for his company is hire as many of these people as he can.