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  • Sam Decker

10 Elements to Sustain Greatness

I watched a documentary on Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini (boxer), a champion boxer. He said, “It is very hard to get to the top, but it is even harder to stay there.”

I would assert that the hype of ‘being on top’ or the ‘coolest new thing’ for a person, topic or company has a half life that continues to decrease.

It is the rare entity that can sustain greatness. But it happens for companies like USAA and Costco who keep a watchful eye on customer satisfaction. Name a restaurant that has gotten better not worse over the course of 10 years. It's hard. It's rare to have entertainers, like Madonna has, who sustained their relevance through reinvention every two to three years. Or Apple, who has not been afraid to disrupt itself and its revenue models. Dell is not the most innovative company but it is relentless in improving its ability to scale into large markets, having gone from laptops and desktops into servers, storage and services.

There are lots of ways to win in terms of business models, markets and product strategy, but there are similar key elements of a culture that can sustain that winning.

The ingredients to sustain greatness in a company are a secret recipe in high demand. That’s why Jim Collin’s books, Good to Great and Built to Last, are so successful and still on the best seller list. Many of the principles to sustain greatness are in there: get the right people, in the right seats, have a leader with humility, grow management from the inside, build a vision, have a cult-like culture, and so on.

Here are ten elements of a company culture that I believe sustains greatness:

  1. Continuous improvement – This is a big one, because it suggests both operational improvement (run the business) and disruptive innovation (change the business). Do you have rigor in your measurement, analysis, desire to improve? Does your company improve the way it serves customers? It’s products? Its people? This is the most important factor because it is a restlessness, if not a paranoia, that you (your company and you) are never good enough. Change is embraced for the sake of improvement. Products are reinvented. New products are added, without losing focus on your core competency.

  2. Focus – Is everyone in the company aligned and executing on the same priorities? Are you sticking to your company’s core competencies, as you grow and build new products and services? Is there a core DNA running through everything you do? Does the management team know what to say no to? This is the #1 killer of growing companies. In fact, there’s a great book on this, aptly titles, Focus (by Al Ries).

  3. Quality – Remember Ford’s campaign, “Quality is Job #1”. Great idea, but probably better suited for Toyota. That is a company who was built and has achieved growth primarily due to quality. When there is a problem, senior executives go to the production floor for hours to understand the problem. When they built the Toyota Sienna minivan, the product manager spent a summer driving around America in minivans. These examples demonstrate the cultural imperative at Toyota of creating the highest quality products – both in reliability and in meeting customer needs.

  4. Open and Direct – how can you continually improve if feedback is not welcome and cherished? Executives need to set the tone here that information and feedback is open.

  5. Accountability – there is a systems of checks and balances between colleagues and executives that people accomplish what they say they are going to accomplish. Or rather, they exceed their goals.

  6. Measurement – Everyone in the company has to appreciate collecting and analyzing data in order to improve. As it is said, you can manage what you can’t measure.

  7. Fun – Why do people want to come to work? Why do people want to work for your company? In order to have positive word of mouth in and about your company people have to enjoy the journey.

  8. Recognition – In addition to fun, good people come to work to achieve something. They like to be recognized for their accomplishments. Have a system to do so. Be conscious about it.

  9. Disciplined Hiring – In a growth company it’s tempting to fill seats. Big mistake. A company is nothing more than processes, policies and people…and the first two are created by the people. So, as tedious and challenging as a rigorous hiring process is, stick with it. Hire for passion, competence, and curiousity. I give about 10% credence to resumes. Use interviews, tests and references to pass someone.

  10. Humility – this may go hand-in-hand with Continuous improvement. I remember my surprise when I heard a President of (unnamed) company answer a question that didn’t’ respect the competition, only the founding fathers of our nation. A couple years later their competition passed them in market share, and that President was relieved of their position. Everyone in the company should embrace that they can learn something from anyone. Otherwise you are about two years away from learning that lesson.


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