a white paper by Dan Coughlin
I’m approximately the same age as Michael Dell, Suze Orman and Michael Jordan. That’s not very exciting except that it has given me an opportunity to watch three world-class performers begin, develop and mature within their careers. The thing about these three people that really intrigues me is not that they were at the top of their profession for so many years because, quite frankly, someone had to be at the top. The thing that intrigues me is that the distance between these individuals and whoever was in second place continued to widen. In other words, while other people maintained high levels of performance, these three accelerated. They increased the rate at which they achieved their highest priority outcomes.
Once I saw this pattern of acceleration with Dell, Orman and Jordan, I began to see it as an underlying thread throughout many otherwise unrelated individuals, groups and organizations: Oprah Winfrey, Intel, Peter Drucker, Wal-Mart, Stephen King, Microsoft, Tiger Woods and Southwest Airlines. They all seemed to share the ability to apply the principles of a field of study that I’m simply calling, Acceleration. The discipline of acceleration examines how to continually increase the rate of your most important achievements. This paper has two parts: A Little Theory and A Lot Of Tips.
There are four types of performers: decliners, status quoers, top performers and accelerators. Figure 1 represents their achievements over a period of time.
Here is a brief description:
- Decliners have quite literally run out of gas. Their achievements over time steadily decline.
- Status Quoers maintain their performance. If they generated 100 units of achievement four years ago, then they maintained that output every year since then.
- Top Performers steadily improve. They are the ones delivering a consistent 10% growth year on top of year.
- Accelerators achieve iconic status. They are the ones increasing their rate of achievement year after year. At one time they operated at the same level as their peer group and then they accelerated past them.
Focus On The Arrow
The biggest difference between these four performers is what they do within any given time frame. The decliner figures his or her best days are done and coasts to the finish line. The status quoer is quite content with the current performance and does not seek a higher level. The top performer has become satisfied with his or her rate of improvement and doesn’t look for ways to enhance it. However, the accelerator is never satisfied. He or she searches for ways to improve the rate of achievement each year. When this happens year after year, the accelerator clearly establishes a new standard of performance with which no competitor can keep up. The remainder of this paper focuses on how you can improve the incline of your arrow year after year.
Apply Your Strengths and Passions
This is the secret of every long-term extraordinary achiever. In the early 1970s Bill Gates was passionate and talented at writing computer software. In the early 1970s writing software was about as far removed from what teenagers thought was cool stuff as you could possibly get. However, the young Gates didn’t particularly care about being cool. He cared about applying his passions and his talents. Harrison Ford said he simply wanted to create a solid career as a good character actor. He worked at his acting craft for fifteen years before he made a living as an actor.
- Write down five things you are truly good at.
- Write down five things you are passionate doing or achieving.
- Search for ways to apply your strengths toward your passions.
Communicate With Candor and Respect
The number one reason managers get fired is because they are poor communicators. The last five executives I saw being laid off were all strong technically, but were very poor communicators. Their communication issues ranged from condescension to brutality to submissiveness to lack of follow-up to always being late to lying. One person literally swore at his direct reports. Another person changed his opinion after every conversation regardless of whom he spoke with. A third person chronically forgot about appointments or ran in late for every meeting.
- Ask provocative questions that cause the other person to think.
- Think of what you are going to say before you start talking.
- Speak only when it’s going to add value in the form of clarity, perspective, support, accountability or guidance.
- Always be honest. Push back when you disagree.
Broaden Your Perspective Regularly
In a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal it was reported that Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, Michael Eisner, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and Martha Stewart all made trips to see Warren Buffett. They all sought out his perspective on key business issues. Tiger Woods broadened his understanding of his swing through working with Butch Harmon. These accelerators understood that we all can get in our own way. None of us is smart enough to always see the path right in front of us. We need an objective third party to point out when we are about to fall on our face or do something worse.
- Write down the names of five people outside of your work group and home life that can provide you with perspective.
- Ask each of these individuals if you could share a recent incident with them and ask for their perspective.
- Read a broad array of viewpoints: Wall Street Journal, Oprah’s magazine, BusinessWeek, Fortune, novels, biographies.
- Watch Biography on the A&E cable channel.
Add Value, Not Activity
Almost everyday I ask other people how they are doing, and I often hear them say, “I’ve been so busy lately.” That doesn’t tell me very much other than that they have filled their days with activities. The key to accelerate is NOT to stay busy. The key is to add value. Value is anything that increases the chances that the other person will achieve what they want to achieve. Walt Disney didn’t make movies, he entertained all members of the family. Bill Gates doesn’t write software, he increases the efficiency of people’s work. Warren Buffet is not an investor, he helps people increase their financial independence. I think you get the point. It’s not about the activities you do or how many hours you work. It’s about increasing the chances that other people will achieve what they want to achieve.
- Identify three individuals or groups you want to enhance.
- For each individual or group, identify their three highest priority desired outcomes.
- For each desired outcome, identify what you can do to increase their chances for success.
- Narrow your action plan to the three things you can do that will add the greatest value for each audience.
- Implement your plan and add more value.
Focus on The Goal, Not The Issues
I was asked to coach a variety of executives within a region of a massive corporation. As part of the project, I was asked to attend a series of one-day seminars put on by another consulting firm on the topic of “culture building.” During these seminars, individuals within the region were encouraged to honestly share their likes and dislikes about their fellow employees. In other words, the major focus of the seminar was to discuss issues between employees and to work together to resolve them. An interesting phenomenon occurred. As people talked about their issues with each other, more issues popped up. Within a few months, the regional meetings were more like soap operas than business drivers. All of this discussion led to a rather unfortunate outcome: the employees stopped thinking about the customers and only thought about themselves. The region went from the Top 10% to the Bottom 10% in comp sales in a period of one year. Great teams focus on the desired outcome, not the issues. When there is a crisis in a community, people pull together to survive. They drop their petty issues and work together. When the Florida Marlins recently won the World Series, they focused solely on the desired outcome. Meanwhile their opponents focused on a myriad of internal issues that had nothing to do with being champions.
- Hold group discussions to discuss and clarify the highest priority desired outcome.
- Ensure that every time the group is together that the discussion and agenda focus on improving the highest priority desired outcome.
- Keep the group focused on the achievement of that goal and not on the myriad of issues that could be discussed.
Collaborate to Accelerate
People contribute more energy and better ideas when they believe their input matters. Constantly I see executives who feel they need to think for their employees. They develop mandates and tell their direct reports to carry out the orders. Then they wonder why their employees never think for themselves or bring creative ideas to the table. Andrew Taylor, the CEO of Enterprise Rent-A-Car, once said, “The best ideas are in the field, not in home office.” He’s right. The best ideas are usually found with the people closest to the customer. Bring the best employees you have from the field and have them regularly attend the meetings of top management. The meetings will be better if these employees are asked for their perspective on the ideas being considered.
- Turn your key objective into an open-ended question.
- Have a variety of people answer the question.
- Have each member of the group answer this next question, “If you could combine two or more of the ideas you’ve just heard into a better idea, what would your new idea be and why do you think it is better?”
Sustain Focus, Sacrifice Fringe
Helmut Panke, CEO of BMW, was asked by the Wall Street Journal if there were special CEO responsibilities for maintaining and building a brand image for automobiles. Panke answered, “The biggest task is to be able to say, ‘No.’ Because in the end, authentic brand management boils down to understanding that a brand is a promise that has to be fulfilled everywhere, at any time. So when something doesn’t fit, you must make sure that that is not done.” Dell, Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart are accelerators because of their fanatical focus. They don’t do anything that does not support their business focus:
- Wal-Mart – we sell for less
- Dell – we are a superefficient distributor
- Southwest Airlines – we provide cheap, funny and convenient travel
I asked a Southwest Airlines flight attendant what it was like to work there. She said, “I love it. At another airline I used to work at everybody sat by their titles at meetings: flight attendants here, pilots there, engineers over there and executives up front. At Southwest Airlines we sit all over the place. We don’t care who we sit next to because we all have the same goal. We stay focused on that.”
- Have your group identify their most important objective.
- Have them identify the three things they can do that would have the greatest positive impact on achieving that one outcome.
- Have them identify six things they will stop doing so they can have the time, energy and resources to do the three things they know they need to do to achieve this outcome.
Manage for Sustainable Results
Effective managers convert resources into better results. Regardless of their industry or group size, their jobs are remarkably similar: define the playing field, attract the right people, coach and develop these people, and hold their staff members accountable for both behaviors and results. In Figure 2 the playing field is described:
- Values – beliefs that determine behaviors
- Short-Term and Long-Term Results – specific, measurable, relevant objectives
- Strategies – guidelines for making decisions, which define your organization and the direction it is moving in
Lorin Maazel, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, in an USA Today interview said, “A lot of conductors mess up by stopping to say something, but when they start again it sounds exactly as it did before. If you want to make a difference, never say anything that’s not going to make a difference. I want to improve things. I don’t just stop the orchestra to hear myself talk. If I say something that will not make it sound different, I’m wasting my time and I’m wasting their time. Don’t demand perfection. Demand passion.”
- Clarify the desired values for driving behaviors in your organization or part of the organization.
- Identify the skills necessary to deliver your value proposition.
- Hire, coach, develop and hold people accountable in a manner that optimizes both the desired behaviors and results.
Influence Every Person Every Day In Every Way
Leadership is the ability to influence the way other people think that causes better results both for the organization and the people in it. Period. End of story. Leadership is about influence, not title or income or authority. Over the past five years we have learned more about leadership than at any other time in history. Unfortunately we learned about it from extraordinarily poor examples of leadership. While suffering through this series of leadership debacles, certain themes have emerged and the most powerful one for me is, “Labels don’t lead.” Over and over, we have seen senior executives prove that having a label does not guarantee an ability to be an effective leader.
- Identify 20 people, famous or not, whom you believe have effectively influenced the way other people think that has caused better results for an organization and the people in it.
- Write down HOW each individual influenced other people’s thinking.
- Ask yourself how you could use these leadership tools you have uncovered to influence people more effectively in your organization.
Innovate as a Way of Life
Constantly search for ways to make your resources generate more value for your customers. Desks have been around forever. Chairs have had wheels on them for a very long time. But put wheels on your desks, make them all exactly the same size and now you have the modern mobile office, which can be reconfigured in multiple ways on a moment’s notice. That’s innovation. Always seek to improve the value you offer.
- Have your team members as well as yourself answer this question, “If we could change or improve three things about what we are currently doing that would add more value to our customers, what would they be?” Discuss your answers until at least one specific, practical idea emerges and implement it.
- After implementing the idea, identify what worked well, what did not work well, what lessons were learned and what to do differently the next time.
Stand By Your Brand
A brand is the value people think they get from an organization or think they would get if they bought from that organization. Every organization has a brand whether they want it or not. The key is to build the brand you want and then stick with it long enough to resonate with your potential customer base. Oprah Winfrey’s television show and magazine represent an extraordinary brand. From my perspective, her business brand is “helping women succeed.” She delivers that value through a myriad of topics and an extremely diverse group of interviewees. By sticking with that value proposition over the long-term, she quite literally has become the world’s most influential force in empowering and inspiring women. The key was that she stood by her brand even when the majority of the talk show industry moved in the direction of focusing on deviant behavior.
Accelerators build the most powerful brands in their respective arenas. Consequently, they attract a disproportionate percentage of unique opportunities and leverage those opportunities to an even greater rate of achievement. Brands matter. Keep a close eye on yours.
- Define your desired customers.
- Identify what your desired customers want to achieve.
- Identify the top three desired customer outcomes that you can improve.
- Gear every decision and activity in your organization toward improving at least one of these three customer outcomes. Seriously evaluate all other activities and decisions and eliminate as many as possible that do not improve at least one of these three customer outcomes.
- Be boringly consistent and constantly innovative. Stay the course on trying to improve the same two or three desired customer outcomes.
- Market to resonate. Make sure people know you can deliver specific value.
Reach For Iconic Status
In the late 1950s, John Kennedy was asked if he would accept the role of vice-president. Kennedy replied, “If I accept second-place when first is available, then I’ll have a habit of doing that the rest of my life.” Why settle for consistent performance or even consistent improvement of performance when you could accelerate and reach iconic status without working any harder or longer? I for one can’t think of a good reason. The icons separate themselves from the pack and make a lasting impact. Try to name the best golfer to ever play not named Nicklaus or Woods and you would find another dozen names being argued over. The same is true with trying to name the greatest investor not named Graham or Buffett. Identifying the most powerful retailer not named Wal-Mart would lead us in multiple directions. The icons constantly accelerate and set the standard much higher for all other performers to aspire after.
About Dan Coughlin
Dan Coughlin teaches practical ideas on how to improve business performance. He is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, executive coach, and author of four books on leadership, sales, branding, and innovation. His books including The Management 500, and Find a Way to Win. His clients include GE Capital, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Marriott, Boeing, Abbott, Toyota, Subway, Kiewit, Prudential, Denny’s, and the St. Louis Cardinals.