How Success Can Lull Us into Excess

Can success subtly and gradually lull us into destructive excess in our professional and personal lives? Yes, it can, and the process is insidious because it’s hard to see that it’s happening to us.

We become like the frog that doesn’t jump out of the pot because he doesn’t realize the water is slowly getting hotter and hotter. In our case, the thing we thought was good for us starts to drown us.

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The New York Times recently ran an article about former Dewey & LeBoeuf partner John J. Altorelli, who had been one of their top rainmakers. The law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf collapsed in 2012 after years of over-expansion, a merger that never worked out, and allegedly incompetent management by the firm’s leadership.

By all accounts, Altorelli is a good guy who excelled at his profession (he apparently brought in $33 million a year in revenue to Dewey). He says he did his best to save the firm from collapse by selling more and more business. However, he just recently filed for personal bankruptcy. Now a partner at another law firm, his personal net worth has crumpled and he faces lawsuits from the Dewey bankruptcy trustee as well as huge IRS claims for back taxes owed on cancelled debt.

The article also highlights Altorelli’s high-flying lifestyle—a personal chauffer, frequent parties to “network,” celebrity charity events, and an ill-fated romance with the infamous Anna Chapman, accused by the US government of being a Russian spy. And more. There was unrelenting pressure to bring in tens of millions in client fees every year. After personally earning $13 million in four years at his old firm he has filed for personal bankruptcy. Phew.

Mr. Altorelli is hardly the poster child for excess—just type “million dollar birthday bash” into Google’s search engine and look at all the entries that pop up! But his story—and the saga of Dewey & LeBoeuf—suggest that when we measure success in the wrong way and derive our deepest sense of personal worth from earning and spending more, there will never be enough success to satisfy us. Our quest will at best disappoint us and at worst destroy us.

My boss and mentor at my old firm, Gemini Consulting (formerly the MAC Group, in Boston) was a business genius who was the antithesis of the extravagant rainmaker. James Kelly was the founder of the firm, and a powerful client developer. He has a brilliant mind, and clients loved his ability to immediately identify the single most critical issue they needed to focus on. He brought in huge amounts of revenue.

Despite his extraordinary success, however—he led the creation of a $1 billion consulting firm–James never focused on the money. He eschewed five star hotels while on business trips and when in New York City he always stayed at the Harvard Club where he paid $75 a night. Once, while in-between meetings in Manhattan, he told a friend of mine, a young associate at the firm, “Let’s grab some lunch.” The associate was eagerly expecting a leisurely meal at some posh bistro. But he was sadly disappointed when James stopped on the corner of Fifth Avenue at a hot dog stand and asked him, “Do you want mustard and ketchup on yours?”

Later, when we sold our firm to Cap Gemini in the early 90s, James’ own stake was small—almost ridiculously small—considering he was the founder. This was because over the years he had generously distributed the equity to all the other partners who had also helped build the business. Contrast that to founders who keep nearly all of the ownership in their own hands until they cash out.

As CEO of our firm, James was consistently modest, generous, and prudent with the company’s financial resources.

How do you know when your success is leading you to excess? It’s a question of balance and what you’re living for. Are you starting to feel entitled? When you start saying to yourself, “I am so successful and so busy, I really deserve all these extra things,” take a look in the mirror. Are they truly merited and fair, or are they excessive? Will you really be setting a great example for your colleagues and clients?

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