”How does the culture of mediocrity take hold? The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.” — Jim Collins, Author and Business Consultant
In a recent conference in Colorado, Jim Collins, the great “guru” of excellence in business (author of Built to Last and Good to Great) talked about the signs of a corporate culture headed toward mediocrity: “The mediocre are all too willing to change.” He talked about the tendency of organizations to look for a silver bullet to solve problems, versus choosing a “lead bullet” and polishing it.
He ought to know: He’s spent the past 20 years doing research that directly identifies what sets apart the great companies and leaders from its also-ran competitors.
So how does corporate culture fit into this picture and avoid the mediocrity trap?
Got Vision? First, building a culture of excellence requires every person in the company understand the vision and strategy. Vision is not just about what you want. I always ask clients “Do you know how to win AND what sets you apart in the customer’s mind?” Whether you are a start-up, shifting strategy or merging with another company, speed and alignment is optimized only through a shared definition of success and clear priorities for how you’ll get there. Most leaders are too broad and vague in defining this territory, and don’t spend enough time ensuring every person in the company understands it. There are CEO’s who see this task (aligning people and priorities to the vision) as their primary job – and spend upwards of 50% of their time doing so.
Less is More. Do you know what the fewest business processes are that you can leverage toward that strategy? Do you have a long-term commitment to mastering them in spite of fads and pressures in the external environment? Most companies attempt far too much and change the wrong stuff when short-term payoff eludes them. For some, it’s going to be a culture of efficiency (Walmart, FedEx). For others, it’s personal customer service (Zappos, Starbucks). For others, it’s wild innovation (Apple, 3M). Greatness means getting crystal clear about what to leverage. Narrow, narrow, narrow … and stay the course.
Take Lance Armstrong. He trained relentlessly for his win, never shortcut the process, and didn’t skimp on the essential elements of his sport. And if he didn’t like his ride times that month, he didn’t switch to running marathons.
Culture Fitness. Culture is simply about rewarding behaviors that cause you to win at your strategy. To make culture an enabler and driver of that performance, you must clearly define the behaviors you need, and work relentlessly to get “fit” at building an environment where those behaviors are common and rewarded, and deterring behaviors that don’t.
For example, a company that defines it’s winning strategy by the coolest new products on the market (Apple, Sony) will need a looser team-driven structure that allows room for creativity and accountability centers around ideas, not delivery times. Hiring, training and development, and compensation practices must attract innovative talent and focus on how to collaborate and work together. In these companies, you will find a very strong, tightly knit group of creative zealots, but the process everyone supports is This is a very different culture than a company that focuses on providing the best value for the lowest cost (Walmart). That strategy relies on a centralized structure and tight management practices.
If you want to be great, stop your addiction to the pursuit of “doing more with less” and cultivate your corporate culture’s greatest strengths as your “platform of excellence.” This becomes a guidepost of consistency for employees, vendors, and stakeholders.
Here’s to the pursuit of greatness. It’s a worthy endeavor for those who dare.