My contention is that all too often, leaders are laser-focused on goals and not nearly attentive enough to what it takes to achieve those goals.
They diligently check dashboards and obsess over outcomes, without paying enough attention to outputs and the quality and consistency of the very actions necessary to achieve goals.
When one looks at the very best teams in sports and business, the opposite is true. They focus on the little things and on getting better every day – with mind-boggling attention to detail. That’s their goal.
They believe that if they focus on quality outputs, continuous improvement, and setting their standard of excellence, this commitment will reap the rewards that come with being the best. They see results as their reward, not their goal. Let me offer two examples of this approach in action.
The University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball Team
No ensemble at the college or professional level has been more dominant over the past 20+ years than the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team. Since 1995, the program has won eleven national championships, played in the last 12 consecutive Final Fours, and owns the longest winning streak in NCAA basketball (men or women) at 111 games. The team’s average margin of victory over the past several years hovers around 35 points per game.
Geno Auriemma is a Hall of Fame head coach who attracts the best players in the country. Yet, other top programs enjoy similar advantages, including Stanford, Notre Dame, Baylor, Tennessee, South Carolina, etc. So it begs the question: Why is UConn, year-in and year-out, so much better than everyone else in women’s college basketball? When I asked UConn Assistant Coach and former UConn All-American Shea Ralph, she told me that as tough as the coaches are on the players, the players are just as tough on themselves and one another. We talked a great deal about how their culture of accountability was key to setting them apart from other teams.
Additionally, the young women who are recruited and who choose to play their college ball at UConn don’t do so because they want to be the leading scorer in the country. They come to Connecticut because they believe they’ll be surrounded by coaching staff and other players who will help them maximize their potential. They believe that working on the little things each and every day is the formula for winning national championships. National titles are not the goal at UConn, they are the reward for the kind of daily commitment to excellence and attention to detail that’s required to become the best team in the country. UConn doesn’t win the national title every year, but for the last 12 years in a row, they have put themselves in a position to do so – a magnificent tribute to their approach to the game.
MullenLowe is a Boston-based advertising agency. The firm’s logo features an octopus wearing boxing gloves. A combative environment, sure, but they don’t fight one another, they fight for the best ideas! People who enjoy the privilege of working there are surrounded by colleagues committed to one another and to create great work for their clients. Imagine for a moment a group of talented people, all from various backgrounds and walks of life, dedicated to producing award-winning advertising that drives their clients’ business. They don’t come to Mullen to win national championships, they come there because they believe that as a team, they can challenge each other to create the best advertising in the world.
Let me illustrate what that looks like based on what I experienced during my time with the agency: The creative director gathers a group of people from various disciplines to come up with ideas for a new campaign for a client or prospect. Everyone on the team shows up prepared – armed with a solid understanding of the client’s business, competitors, market, strategy, and so on. The ideas start flying. Eventually, something takes shape, and the bones of a campaign are displayed on a board. People look at one another and collectively celebrate their genius, realizing that not one of them could have created the campaign alone. After a short break, they know it’s time to start from scratch and come up with another campaign.
Here’s the best part: on all the occasions I ever participated in that exercise, the first campaign, which everyone celebrated with such great enthusiasm, never made the cut to show the client. The deeper they dug as a team, the better the work became. It’s what happens when you have people who trust and respect one another enough to go to battle for the best idea. It’s why MullenLowe isn’t just any advertising agency, it’s a force of nature.
If you focus what’s in front of you each and every day, with a commitment to being the best you can be and helping your teammates do the same, this is what being a winner looks like. This is the type of consistent behavior that drives the rewards that come with excellence. Ironically, it doesn’t require incomparable talent or super-human strength. It’s what anyone can do. It’s that most people just don’t.
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