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May 08, 2006
Five Secrets of Best-Performing Companies

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By Chris Ceplenski, Senior Editor

Jason Jennings, best-selling author and business speaker, told the audience of compensation professionals at the 2006 WorldatWork Total Rewards Conference & Exhibition in Anaheim, California, that they were doing "the most important work taking place in business today."

He proceeded to reveal what he called the five "secrets" or characteristics the best-performing or great companies share, based on his (and his research team's) study of over 180,000 companies.

Jennings has found that the best-performing companies meet the greatest challenge in business today: that is they find, keep, and grow the right people. This is where his secrets come in, as each, he says, is connected to recruiting and retaining the best people.

Secret #1: Having a "Cause"

The first secret is that great companies master the art of finding, keeping, and growing the right people by having a cause. A cause, Jennings explained is neither a mission statement nor a vision statement, which Jennings believes are "management indulgences" that have no real impact on an organization. Instead, a cause is the "authentic reason for the existence of the organization."

A cause is "big and bold" Jennings says. For example, Microsoft's cause is to put one of its operating systems on every desk in the world. It was the cause Bill Gates had in mind from the beginning and still has today. Likewise, a cause is not a goal--it's not, for example, about increasing revenue by a few million dollars in X amount of years.

A cause should be based on why your company really wants to do--such as being the best in your industry at what you do--and should give meaning to people's lives. Having a cause, Jennings asserts, provides purpose, fuels passion, drives momentum and most significantly, builds cultures.

A company's culture is the "ultimate competitive advantage," Jennings says. "What you sell can never be your competitive advantage." Competitors can "steal" your products or services by making or providing the same products and services. Your "people" likewise can never be your competitive advantage because people leave companies and the competition can "steal" them too. But a competitor can never steal a great company culture.

Secret #2: Letting Go

Mastering the "art of letting go" is another secret of great/best-performing companies, Jennings explained. He told the true story of how monkey-catchers have traditionally caught monkeys by placing a small hole in a gourd and putting peanuts or sweets inside, in plain view of a monkey. Monkeys who fall for the bait will wait for their would-be captor to move away, then stick their hands inside the gourd, grabbing a handful of food. However, their hand gets stuck once it's full of whatever snack is inside. If they would simply let go of the food, they could free their hand and escape, but they refuse to give up what they've got, and as a result, are often captured.

"What are you holding onto that you need to let go of?" Jennings asked the audience. Jennings says that great companies don't let egos drive decision-making processes and are willing to let go of "yesterday's breadwinners" and "same-old same-old." Jennings gave the examples of companies who refused to accept that the old way of doing things no longer worked or that products that were no longer profitable couldn't be saved. When companies are willing to let go, they are better able to deal with change.

Secret #3: Focusing on the Right Customers

Great companies understand that satisfied customers leave. The traditional way of thinking regarding customer satisfaction is that satisfied customers will come back. However, Jennings says that two-thirds of all customers who stop doing business with companies deem themselves 'satisfied' customers. The new way to approach customer service, he says, is to "completely satisfy the right customers." He believes that companies need to acknowledge that there is such a thing as a 'wrong' customer and does not promote the thinking that "green is go" and all customers are the same if they are willing to pay. Jennings purports that great companies put intense focus on knowing who their "right" customers are and keeping them.

Secret #4: Getting Everyone to Think, Act like Owners

Another secret of great companies is that they get everyone to think and act like owners, creating a culture where "everyone knows that creating long-term value counts," says Jennings. One best-performing company Jennings discussed provided their employees not only with job descriptions, but an explanation of how what they did added long-term value to the company. These employees were armed with the link between the functions they performed and overall company performance.

This concept also includes giving the "decision rights to the right people." If you want your company to grow, Jennings asserts, people with the knowledge needed to make the decisions must be the ones to make them, not the people in "the corner office." The hierarchal structure should not determine who makes decisions.

And, Jennings notes, those people making the decisions should be compensated for the value they create. This is something he has found across all the best-performing companies he's identified--the bulk of an employee's compensation is based on the value they create for the company.

Also related to this concept is the one that everybody be held accountable, but not as the result of "top-down pronouncements." In other words, employees should not be told "This is your goal next year, and you will meet it." Instead, a mutual agreement should be reached where employees know that once this agreement has been reached, they must deliver as agreed.

Secret #5: Stewardship

Jennings's final secret is that leadership is no longer about "pillaging and plundering" and getting your face splashed across the covers of magazines as exemplary business leaders--as had now-disgraced leaders of Enron, Tyco, and MCI WorldCom before their respective downfalls. Instead, great companies understand that authentic leadership is stewardship. Stewardship, Jennings explains, includes putting "service over self-interest." In fact, Jennings says that leaders at most of the companies he deemed "best-performing" were wary of being identified publicly in his books.

Stewards share, don't hoard, information. They are also accessible--the company presidents/CEOs of best-performing companies list their private phone number in the phone book, Jennings says. Stewards also "get rid of superficial distinctions" like large, private offices. (Note: not one of the best-performing companies Jennings identified was a "suit and tie" atmosphere--they are nearly all business casual atmospheres).

Finally, stewards "keep their hands dirty" by listening and talking to customers--asking them questions and showing interest in what they want/need. What better way to send a message to the rest of the employees that they too should show interest in customers?

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