Everyone wants to know whether their business is successful but they often ask the wrong person. The best person to ask is you: Don't let other people define your success.

Most of us are in business to generate cash to fund our lifestyles but there are usually trade-offs that are necessary to achieve this. Looking outside your business towards your personal aspirations is a much better way to understand whether your business is successful than measuring it against some arbitrary financial metric. The fact is that we all want to be successful but each of us has a different idea of what success looks like. Some of us might define it in terms of wealth, others in terms of recognition, family relationships, community involvement or ability to spend time pursuing interests outside of work. Most of us would include a combination of all of these but their relative importance varies between us.

The key to business success is to develop a business that helps you achieve your personal goals and ambitions and that meets with your personal values. Failure to achieve this is one of the major causes of stress and discontent for many business people.

One of the most powerful ways of defining your own success is to develop a 20 year life plan and the good news is that this really isn’t hard to do. Start at 20 years and work backwards through 10 years to 5 years and finally 1 year. At each stage, answer the 4 questions below with reference to your previous answers. For example, at the 10 year stage ask yourself what you will have had to achieve to be on track to achieve your 20 year target. At the 5 year stage ask yourself what you will need to have achieved to be on track for your ten year targets etc. Here are six steps that show you how to do this:

  1. For each of the 20, 10, 5 and 1 year horizons answer the following 4 questions: (There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions. You can interpret them in any way that makes sense to you).
    What will you BE? Think through the various roles you will have in your life at this stage. What are they? Father, mother, grand-parent, sibling, scholar, friend, mentor, etc. Think carefully about the roles that you would like to have and why. Write them down.
    What will you have ACCOMPLISHED? At this stage, what will you have accomplished? What achievements will you be proud of? List them.
    What will you be DOING? This is different to the roles you have outlined in "What will you be?" but maybe supportive of those roles. What activities will you be involved in? business, travel, family holidays, community work, etc. List them.
    What will you OWN ? What assets will you have? What will your debt structure look like? Be as specific as you feel you can. Where possible put dollar amounts next to asset items. List the major asset groups e.g. houses, cars, "big toys", investments, business assets, savings, etc.
  2. Once you have done this ask the same questions about where you are now. This will help you with a reference point from which you can see your progress over the next year.
  3. Use the Now Where How approach to develop some actions to help you get from where you are now to where you want to be in one years’ time.
  4. Document what you intend to do over the next 12 months by using a One Page Plan. This is a simple and efficient way to keep track of where you are now, where you would like to be and how you are going to get there.
  5. Share the plan with people who are important to you (or preferably ask them to contribute to it). These people could include your spouse, partner, family, associates, business advisor and anyone who could help you achieve your goals.
  6. Review your 20 year plan at least once a year and use it to evaluate how well your business is helping you to achieve your goals. Consider what you have achieved or not achieved and update the plan for the following year so that you remain on track. You may find that your short term goals will change a little but for most people their 20 year goals remain reasonably consistent – especially if they think about them properly in the first place.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose” It follows that you can't be successful if you don’t know your aim or purpose. Developing a 20 year life plan will help you clarify this – and help you understand how successful your business really is. Twenty years is a long time, plenty of time to get on track if you are feeling derailed. Develop your 20 year plan and you may be pleasantly surprised by how successful you are.

And finally, if you want a snapshot to determine whether you and your business are healthy, take a look here.