What Makes Great?
For the past several months as I have been meeting with entrepreneurs and company executives, I have been asking them the same question:
What is the key quality that makes a company great?
In my unscientific survey with a statistically insignificant sample size (N=~20), answers varied to an extent, but summing to a single word, would be commitment.
Respondents elaborated on their feedback, citing the commitment of the team to consistently adhere to the mission and core values of the company, persistence in never giving up when times looked dark.
And then there was my good friend Vince, who runs sales for a global tech giant, and has seen more than his share of successful companies big and small. He didn’t have to think for more than a moment when he uttered: ruthlessness.
Ruthlessness has such a pejorative association – one thinks of terrorists, pirates, the Yankees — how can it be a key ingredient in making a company great? Surely there are companies whose personas are thought of in a ruthless light – Enron or the Yankees for example — but they are usually considered to harbor criminals.
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines ruthlessness as follows:
- Want of compassion; insensibility to the distresses of others.
The more I thought about it, the more I am convinced that Vince is right. But I am also convinced that the kind of ruthlessness that helps make companies great is just another facet of commitment.
Great companies take the steps that are in the best interests of making their business succeed, even if those decisions are, at times, unpopular or insensitive. These days it frequently means laying off employees who have given their all in pursuit of the company’s goals, in order to help lower burn rates to get through lean times. But it also means pulling out all stops to get that crucial customer, to recruit that key employee, or to line up a set of partnerships that will lift the company’s credibility. Think of Vinod Khosla waiting all day in the lobby of Computervision to steal a lynchpin deal away from Apollo.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, aptly subtitled, “The Story of Success,” focuses on individuals and the reasons for their extraordinary achievements. It’s a great (and fast) read that I recommend. In a Q&A on his website, Gladwell makes some comments about his book that are quite relevant to the topic of a company’s success:
My wish with Outliers is that it makes us understand how much of a group project success is. When outliers become outliers it is not just because of their own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances— and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think.
I realize that Gladwell wasn’t thinking about the success of a startup company – so I am taking strong poetic license here. But it’s my blog, so that’s ok.
Great companies are driven by outliers (individuals or collections) who are supported by a strong cast of committed team members – who in concert have a ruthless approach to winning. Sometimes that approach offends their constituents, sometimes it captivates them. In either case, they win. Particularly when their competition doesn’t exhibit the same desire.
So you may hate the Yankees as much as I do or maybe more. But the fact is that Derek Jeter doesn’t suck, despite the protestations of t-shirts sold outside Fenway. And neither do A-Rod, Johnny Damon, Mariano Rivera or any of the other thugs in that lineup. They have a ruthless desire to win and have been more consistent (I’d argue more committed) than any other MLB team. As a life-long Red Sox fan, it pains me to write this, but maybe startups can learn a lot from the Yankees.