Building a business is hard – building a great business is even harder. As leaders, we are thinking about strategy, processes, team building, workflow, technology, customer attention and care, pricing, and so many other things every day. In fact, when we sit back and reflect, we know that we are generally ordinary people trying to do extraordinary things. The stories of Apple, Uber, and Amazon dominate business leadership books and leadership “manuals,” however many of us are not running a company like one of these. We are building those Small Giants in our efforts to make a difference in our sphere of influence. However, there are companies in ordinary industries around the world, whose leaders who reimagining what is possible in their very own businesses. In Simply Brilliant, we have stories of companies doing remarkable things in industries like office cleaning, retail banking, grocery, and electrical manufacturing – could we do this in the accounting profession?
William Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company and the author of Simply Brilliant, lays out these stories of success based on 4 principles that rose to the top in his research. Here is a recap of some of those things that seem ordinary but are producing extraordinary results.
Stop Trying to Be the Best; Strive to Be the Only
With the pace of change and innovation accelerating at an increasing rate, most all organizations are finding that standard performance is moving up. This means that just doing things a little better than someone else cannot be the goal because soon thereafter, someone else will move beyond that new standard. Instead, remarkable companies are doing the things that their competitors can’t or won’t do.
Metro Bank in the U.K. which was started by Vernon Hill and who had previously started Commerce Bank (which was eventually acquired by TD Bank) chose a “Lighthouse Identity.” Hill introduced simple consumer focused concepts to retail banking such as evening and weekend hours, fresh, vibrant colors and attractive stores, and a workforce of passionate believers. Metro Bank’s strategy is built on four pillars:
- Point of view – they have a particular take on how they see the world
- Intensity – they offer an intense projection of who they are in everything they do
- Salience – they are highly intrusive; one cannot avoid noticing their activity
- Built on rock – they assert a compelling conviction that the stance they are taking is one that is uniquely theirs
In the quest to strive to be the only, rather than the best, the leader of an organization needs passion beyond drive. A successful venture according to John Doerr (of the VC firm Kleiner Perkins), reflects the following:
- A+ founder or founding team
- A commitment to technical excellence
- A devotion to building an authoritative, trusted brand
- An obsession with customer experience
- A reasonable approach to financing
- A sense of urgency
These companies bring choice to the marketplace. Competition is not the same as choice.
Don’t Let What You Know Limit What You Can Imagine
Expertise is powerful – until it is the barrier to seeing the next idea. To be interesting matters, but to be interested is the most meaningful. Innovative leaders live with a paradox of creative personality. The paradoxes of truly creative leaders accordingly to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the godfather of flow) are:
- Smart, yet naïve
- Playful, yet disciplined
- Demonstrate responsibility and irresponsibility
- Remarkably humble and proud at the same time
Megabus is one of those extraordinary companies bringing innovation to the drab, uninspiring experience of bus travel. By introducing online ticketing, discriminatory seat fare pricing, and a dynamic social media presence, Megabus has almost single handedly elevated the image of bus travel. Southwest has done much of this for the airline industry, and Megabus largely built upon this idea to bring this type of experience to bus travel. As a company with a lighthouse identity, Megabus introduced choice in an industry where all the traditional bus carriers knew the experiences they offered to customers were less than flattering.
It’s Just as Important to Be Kind as to Be Clever
The author states, “in a world being reshaped by technology, what so many of us crave are small gestures of kindness that remind us of what it means to be human.” Extraordinary companies do not reserve these simple acts of humanity to only customers. The culture of our companies is built around how we treat our co-workers, our vendors, and those with whom we influence. If we honestly look back at our work history, we’ve all experienced the incivility of business. What is it about business that makes is so hard to be kind?
Pret, employs a rigorous training program to ensure certain behaviors are on display at all levels of the organization. Who you are as a person counts as much as what you know. The Pret experience evaluates their job applicants based on how their personal values correlate to the company’s core behaviors. After a work trial run at a shop, employees at various levels assess candidates then vote on whether to extend a full-time offer to new hires.
Taylor believes that companies that do a good job in the “emotional labor” side of operations where small acts of connection become commonplace, will win big in the future. The most effective leaders of the future will ensure that the drive for creativity and productivity does not come at the expense of someone else’s need for compassion and generosity. These simple acts are what create “lovemarks” – brands that become a beautiful obsession and create loyalty beyond reason (the advertising agency of Saatchi & Saatchi came up with this idea of lovemarks).
If we are looking to create something extraordinary in the marketplace, we must create something exceptional in the workplace. Lior Arussy says…
“Human beings are the most elusive material there is, but only human beings can consistently go beyond what customers expect… if you want to create something exciting and compelling, a performance that keeps evolving, the human spirit is the only thing that delivers.”
We should remember that our employees are customers of lots of other companies and they know how they like to be treated – do we want to move products, or do we want to move people?
The Allies You Enlist Matter More Than the Power You Exert
Tony Hsieh is undertaking a strategic experiment of a co-working, co-learning environment that brings together a group of people with a bias to collaboration to live and learn together. The Downtown Project, is the development of a community in a section of Las Vegas where Hsieh has moved the Zappos headquarters and enlisted countless of other entrepreneurial minded individuals to live and work together. The idea here is that environments like this create those serendipitous moments of “random collisions of unusual suspects.”
The essential qualities of post bureaucratic organizations will reflect that:
- All ideas compete on an open footing
- Contribution counts for more than credentials
- Resources get attracted, not allocated
- Leaders serve rather than preside
- Power comes from sharing, rather than hoarding
Linda Hill, Harvard Business School, says that sustained innovation comes when everyone has the opportunity to demonstrate a ‘slice of genius’ rather than reserving this for those with positions of authority. In many ways, we are experiencing a growing trend from classic capitalism to social capitalism where everyone has ownership in the success of the business and is a part of a purpose that matters.
So, what does it look like for your small CPA firm to do something ordinary in extraordinary ways? Can we create more value than we capture? Can we be the entrepreneurial business owner who creates jobs, generates wealth, and builds an organization that closes the gap between what is and what can be? This book will encourage you and inspire you with tangible examples of companies doing remarkable things.
Thomas L. Friedman says that “average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to” – be extraordinary!
As the founder of Kregel & Company, Scott holds the firm accountable to keeping a customer-focused mindset every day. He is passionate about coming alongside others in their pursuit of doing good. You can often find him within a 10 mile radius of the office training for his next marathon. He also loves bringing out the best in his three children, reading business and leadership books, and dreaming up his next great idea.