5 Ways to Beat Mediocrity

Aug 12, 2012

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

The Olympics are probably the greatest recurring example of superhuman effort compressed into a single point in time: a lifetime’s practice comes down to a single 100 meter dash; four years of training pays off (or doesn’t) in one passed baton in the final leg of the relay; nanoseconds, or fractions of an inch, separate elation and despair.

Running a business can become the exact opposite: no single point of payoff, no clear winner or loser at a particular point in time, no podium, no gold medal. There’s just the long, arduous slog of doing the same things, day in, day out.

And it’s in that sameness, in that cradle of monotony, that mediocrity is born.

If you are left unchallenged you perform…adequately. Appropriately. You do what is right. You do what is enough. You excel intermittently, fail occasionally, but mostly, you just get by. Who’s to say what difference this sales report will make in the long run? Where’s the payoff in stacking this inventory correctly? Why exactly should I be excited about this week’s management meeting?

But some businesses do operate like an Olympic team.

These companies hone and polish their business model, reshape and retool their decision-making processes, practice their trade relentlessly, until they have it down, perfectly–or as near to perfect as they can get it. These companies work unceasingly at their product and service offerings, acutely conscious that they have to out-perform the competitors. These businesses race to a goal like their lives depend on it. Then race to another goal. Then another.

Think of Apple – who’s to say their product announcements lack any of the drama or grandeur of ascending an Olympic podium (and who’s to say the subsequent revenues aren’t the equivalent of winning business gold?) Or take the Virgin Group, or Berkshire Hathaway. While competitors plough through each mundane day, these and many other companies race each day like it’s their last with passion and commitment.

So how do you make your team Olympic-worthy?

1. Set BHAGs

Jim Collins’ and Jerry Porass’s concept of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal has fallen out of favor in recent years – except for gold medal winners. Look at any of the companies in the list above, and their audacious goals stare right back at you. What’s yours?

2. Achieve

Huh? Isn’t that like saying ‘breathe’? Well, no.

I’ve worked with many companies (the majority, in fact) who set goal after goal after goal, as if goal-setting is what will get them the gold. It won’t. Achieving those goals is what gets the gold. Start with a goal you can achieve. Achieve it. Then another. Then another. Then achieve your BHAG. Then another BHAG. And another. Build a solid record of achievement. Very few non-achievers turn up at the Olympics then suddenly win. They arrive at the Olympics with a solid track record of achievement behind them.

3. Celebrate people

There’s a reason sales goals alone don’t bring the gold medal: In the end, they’re just numbers. Sure, sales goals are important (you won’t get far without them), but people aren’t motivated to go for gold by just numbers. They’re motivated, frankly, by what’s in it for them – ego, power, fun, passion, fulfillment – the exact same things that motivate you.

On the way to achieving your goals – small and large – make sure that your people are the centerpiece of celebration, not the numbers – it’s your people who will win the gold for you, after all, not your balance sheet.

4. Teach, coach, mentor.

Business is a team sport – you don’t get the gold by excelling individually. Communicating your goals is one thing, inspiring your people to rise to those goals is another, but trading your time and energy to be a resource to your team – mentoring them, coaching them, teaching them what you know and they don’t – that’s how you build not just a winning team, but one that can compete at Olympic level.

5. Get out of the way.

If you diligently apply the four principles above, at some point, your team will begin to push you. You’ll feel it – their intuition about what works and what doesn’t, becomes more finely honed than yours. Their ideas are faster, better, easier to implement than yours. Their knowledge – of your product, of your customers, of your systems is deeper, richer than yours.

That’s when you know you have an Olympic-level team – one that can win. Your job is to get out of their way and let them do it.

Will you go for the gold? Or is today just another day?