As part of our continuing series where I share highlights of some of my favorite books that have shaped the way I approach business and leadership, I’d like to introduce you to Simply Brilliant by William C. Taylor.
Building a business is hard. Building a great business is even harder.
As leaders, we’re thinking about strategy, processes, team building, workflows, technology, customer attention and care, pricing, and so much more. The stories of Apple, Uber, and Amazon dominate business books and leadership “manuals,” but many of us are not running companies like those. We’re building “small giants” to make a difference in our sphere of influence. Who should we look to for inspiration? In Simply Brilliant, William Taylor lays out stories of great organizations that have achieved extraordinary results using four principles that rose to the top in his research.
Four Principles for Becoming Simply Brilliant
1. Stop trying to be the best. Strive to be the only.
With the pace of change and innovation accelerating, most organizations are finding standard performance is moving up. This means that doing things just a little better than someone else can’t be the goal, because soon, someone else will move beyond that new standard. Instead, remarkable companies are doing the things their competitors can’t or won’t do.
For example, Metro Bank in the U.K., which was started by Vernon Hill who had previously started Commerce Bank (eventually acquired by TD Bank), chose a “lighthouse identity,” where they own a unique position in the marketplace by being purpose-driven and consumer-focused. Hill introduced simple concepts to retail banking that would make a difference for Metro Bank’s customers, such as evening and weekend hours, vibrant and attractive stores, and a workforce of passionate believers. The bank’s strategy was 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 prominent. One can’t avoid noticing their activity.
- Built on rock: They assert a compelling conviction. The stance they’re taking is uniquely theirs.
In this quest to strive to be “the only,” rather than “the best,” the leader of an organization needs passion beyond drive. According to John Doerr of the VC firm Kleiner Perkins, a successful venture relies on the following:
- An 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
Companies like these bring choice to the marketplace. Competition is not the same as choice.
2. Don’t let what you know limit what you can imagine.
Expertise is powerful – until it’s 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. Accordingly to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the godfather of flow, truly creative leaders are:
- Smart, yet naïve
- Playful, yet disciplined
- Responsible and irresponsible
- Remarkably humble and proud at the same time
Megabus is one of those extraordinary companies bringing imagination to the drab experience of bus travel. Inspired by the way Southwest Airlines transformed the flying experience, Megabus has almost single handedly elevated bus travel by introducing online ticketing, tiered pricing, and a dynamic social media presence. By building a lighthouse identity, they have introduced choice in a traditional, uninspiring industry.
3. It’s just as important to be kind as to be clever.
Taylor writes, “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 don’t reserve these simple acts of humanity for customers. The culture of our companies is built around how we treat our co-workers, our vendors, and those 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?
Restaurant Pret A Manger employs a rigorous training program to ensure kind behaviors are on display at all levels of the organization. Who you are as a person counts as much as what you know. Pret evaluates their job applicants based on how their personal values correlate to the company’s core behaviors. After a working trial at a shop, employees at various levels assess candidates, then vote on whether to extend an offer.
Taylor believes companies that do a good job in the “emotional labor” side of operations, where small acts of connection become commonplace, will win big. 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” that become a beautiful obsession and create loyalty beyond reason.
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.”
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?
4. The allies you enlist matter more than the power you exert.
Entrepreneur Tony Hsieh started a strategic experiment called DTP in Las Vegas, a co-working, co-learning environment that brings together entrepreneurial people to collaborate, live, and learn together. The idea is that environments like this create serendipitous moments of “random collisions of unusual suspects.”
Taylor writes that successful, post-bureaucratic organizations will reflect similar ideals as those found in DPT:
- 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 of Harvard Business School says that sustained innovation comes when everyone – not just people in positions of authority – can demonstrate a “slice of genius.” In many ways, we’re experiencing a transformation from classic capitalism to social capitalism, where all the people who work in an organization have ownership in its success and are part of a purpose that matters.
Why be average when you can be extraordinary
So, what does it look like for your business 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, make lives better, and build an organization that closes the gap between what is and what could be? This book will encourage and inspire you with tangible examples of companies just like yours who are doing remarkable things.
As Thomas L. Friedman says, “Average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to.”
Let’s be extraordinary!