What if everyone in a company worked relentlessly to be the best? The best salesperson...the best customer-service professional...the best manager...the best (let's just say) cake decorator or corporate blogger or nonprofit fund-raiser in the industry? It's a simple notion, but one with profound implications, says Jon Gordon. After all, a company made up of the best people in the business is itself the best in the business—and while there aren't any sure bets, being the best is the closest you'll ever come to a Get Out of the Recession Free card.
"Any company can create a culture of greatness," says Gordon, author of the new book Training Camp: What the Best Do Better Than Everyone Else (Wiley, 2009). "Why don't they? Probably because they don't know how. People tend to think there's some kind of magic bullet or secret formula to being the best, but it's just not true.
"For an individual, greatness is all about the fundamentals," he says. "It's about getting the basics right, over and over again, every day of the week. For a company, it's about every employee doing that. It's not that complicated, really—and if we've learned anything from the recession, it's that the companies that focus on the basics are the ones that survive when times get tough."
Specific traits and habits separate "the best" from "the rest," says Gordon, and he reveals them in his new book. Get every employee in a company to absorb and practice them, and soon the company will have a team that's unstoppable—yes, even in a stalled economy.
The ideas in Training Camp are based on Gordon's work with teams such as the Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville Jaguars and organizations such as Campbell Soup Co., Northwestern Mutual, Publix Super Markets, J.P. Morgan, Texas Children's Hospital and the FBI.
"Training Camp is all about what it takes to rise to the top of your game—whatever that game may be," he explains. "It's all about the habits the best of the best in all professions have in common. Leaders who can ingrain these habits into their culture will find that the slow-and-steady-tortoise approach really does work."
Gordon offers the following tips for getting back to basics:
Be willing to outwork everyone else. People might think being the best is an accident of birth, that certain people are endowed with superior genes or happen to be born to parents who live in the right ZIP Code. Not true, says Gordon. People become the best through hard work and "zoom focusing" on the (often little and ordinary and boring) fundamentals of your particular job until you master them.
"I read a great story about Will Smith where he attributed his success as an actor to his strong work ethic," says Gordon. "He told an interviewer, 'I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked. You may be more talented than me. You might be smarter than me. And you may be better-looking than me. But if we get on a treadmill together, you are going to get off first, or I'm going to die. It's really that simple. I'm not going to be outworked.'
"I love that quote!" Gordon says. "And I think the lesson for companies is twofold. One, make sure employees are hard workers, willing to hone their individual job skills until they master them. Talent matters, sure, but perseverance matters more. Two, make sure the company stays the course long enough to become the best at what they do. If the company keeps shifting strategies or market focus, that can't happen."
Get the little things right. Remember, there is no secret recipe for being the best. The art is in putting the recipe's ingredients together. The best take action every day and do the common tasks—returning phone calls, filling out reports, capturing customer information, preparing for meetings—with uncommon focus, dedication and a commitment to excellence.
"To offer an example, great salespeople do the same things mediocre salespeople do," Gordon says. "They just do so with more focus and consistency. And great companies are made up of employees who do what they're supposed to do, every day of the week."
Don't lower your standards when no one's looking. Gordon likes to tell the story of a CEO who insisted that his company's mailroom, which no customer ever visited, be kept neat and tidy at all times. His point? The best do the right thing even when no one can see them, and the mailroom is a symbol of that. The same might be said for behaviors like surfing the Web when the boss is at a meeting or badmouthing clients behind their backs. "Remember, being the best is all about forming good habits," Gordon notes. "If employees do the right thing all the time, the right thing will be second nature when it counts."
Don't focus on outcomes. Instead, focus on the process that gets the company there. Motivational gurus often tell people to "visualize your goal." Gordon disagrees with this philosophy. In the same way that great athletes stay in the moment rather than obsessing about the outcome of the game, great companies keep their collective nose to the grindstone, zoom focusing on the day-to-day tasks that made them great in the first place, he says.
"A great example is Organic Valley, a provider of organic dairy products, produce, meats and other natural foods," Gordon says. "Each year, they continue to grow dramatically, and yet they don't have an 'outcome' goal in mind. Rather, they focus on their purpose and process, and this fuels their growth."
Whatever you do, don't rest on proverbial laurels. Despite popular misconception, success doesn't really breed success. It breeds complacency. Gordon says coaches and business leaders often dread success far more than they dread failure. "Too often, a team will have a successful season or a player will have a great year, and when they come back the following season, they think all they have to do is show up and they'll enjoy the same results, forgetting it was the hard work, focus and process that helped them create their success," Gordon says.
"Well, that happens in business, too," he says. "The moment you think you have arrived at the door of greatness is the moment it gets slammed in your face. The key is to always be innovating, offering new products and services, improving customer service, and staying one step ahead of your competition. The solution is to stay humble and hungry."
Perhaps the company is worried that times are so tough and the competition is so fierce that becoming the best company in the industry is far out of grasp. That's a misconception, Gordon says. The truth is, the gap between "the best" and "the rest" is very, very small.
"In baseball, consider the difference between a .250 batter and a .350 batter," he says. "If you calculate 162 games a year, four or five bats a game, the difference between a .250 batter and a .350 batter is only 1.7 hits a week. It's the little things that separate the best from the rest. If you can do those important little things just 10% better than the competition, you can rise to the top of your field.
"But it's the kind of thing that can't happen by decree. It has to come from within the employees themselves," Gordon says. "They have to know what the drills are, and they have to want to do the training. Once those conditions are met, the sky is the limit."