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How Successful Executives Make Their Own Luck

The other day I was chatting with an associate when the subject of CEO succession at Apple arose. I said I thought Tim Cook was well-positioned to take over the reins from Steve Jobs, to which he replied, "must be nice."

The implication of his comment was clear: Cook just magically appeared at the right place and the right time and why couldn't that happen to me?

But that's not the way it happened. Cook spent 16 years in the computer industry - cutting his teeth with IBM and Compaq - before coming to Apple 11 years ago. Since then he's completely revamped Apple's manufacturing and supply chain management - wringing out costs and turning Apple's profit margins into the envy of the computing world. Fortune called Tim "The genius behind Steve Jobs."

It's all too easy to attach some magical attribute to successful executives, perhaps calling it "having all the luck" or "being in the right place at the right time." But is that really the way it works?
Today I read that long-time Intel executive Pat Gelsinger is leaving the company for EMC, while Sean Maloney, David Perlmutter, and Andy Bryant are taking on increased responsibilities at the chip giant. But these four executives didn't just fall from the sky.They each have 20 years of tenure at Intel. How will Gelsinger fare outside the company? I don't know, but back in the 90s, former Intel veterans Dave House and Carl Everett did pretty darn well at Bay Networks and Dell Computer.

Today I also read that Bob Eulau, who I worked with at Rambus, joined troubled contract manufacturer Sanmina-SCI. Bob spent 16 years at Hewlett-Packard before moving on to Rambus and then Alien Technology, where he soon became acting CEO and then COO. Was Eulau just in the right place at the right time, or is the same thing about to happen at Sanmina-SCI, where founding CEO Jure Sola seems to have "run his course?"

And that's really the point here. We talk about luck, but successful people make their own luck. We talk about opportunity, but successful people work their tails off, solve critical problems, and slowly but surely work their way into positions where it appears as if they're in the right place at the right time.

These days it certainly seems as if more and more people want what others have earned. People line up around the block to be in reality TV shows. Parents spend their evenings coaching their children to be football, baseball, or tennis stars in the hope that they "hit it big." And don't even get me started on the lottery.

But you know what? Those things really are mostly about luck. But business success? Not really.

[Image courtesy European Press Photo Agency]