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Underdogs Can't Win Being Copycats

In today’s competitive marketplace we all seek that winning edge that will help expand our skill set and our client base.

As we strive to perform better, we often look for answers in the wrong places. We frequently look to the top performers in our industry and ask them how they do what they do.

Instead of attempting to be the next “top brand” or the next “top expert” by trying to be a carbon copy of someone else, think outside the box and be the best version of yourself. In my previous career as a college lacrosse coach, early on the best advice I heard was from my coaching mentor Randy Mills.

On an early season road trip, when he saw me reading books by coaching legend Vince Lombardi, he pulled me aside and gently told me, “If you want to be a great coach, don’t try to be the next Vince Lombardi. Just be the best John Brubaker.”

Related: To Solve Big Problems, Assume Everything Is Wrong and Ask Dumb Questions

His point was well taken and from that day forward I focused on doing it my way and being true to myself. His advice has served me well. Most professions, much like the coaching profession, are copycat leagues, so to speak. People see the competition doing something well and they imitate it. Whether it is congruent with who they are and their personnel or not, they still imitate it, hoping for the same result.

The copycat concept is alive and well in the business world. In the early 2000s Gillette enjoyed a 72 percent market share in the razor industry. Today its biggest competitor continues to be Schick. When Gillette came out with its innovative three-blade razor called the Mach 3, Schick countered with the Quattro, a four-blade razor. Gillette quickly responded with a five-blade design.

The takeaway is that more isn’t always better, and adding more of the same thing won’t guarantee better results. If it did, why then aren’t men all over the globe shaving today with a Schick “Ocho?"

Here’s the rub with each of these copycats: “Their version” was never as successful as the original. Underdogs can’t win by being copycats because the bootleg version never is quite as good as the master. Why then do we do the same in our professions?

Don’t get me wrong, I am indeed of the mindset to recognize that the best idea is often a stolen one. I just believe the best ideas are “stolen” from outside your industry. Here are some examples:

1. Herb Kelleher, CEO of then startup/underdog Southwest Airlines, came up with the idea of the 20-minute turnaround of planes by watching NASCAR pit crews perform. Competitors average a 45 to 60 minute-turnaround in comparison to Southwest’s now 15-minute turnaround time. The shortened turnaround times enable Southwest to average 10.5 flights per day (more than twice the industry average). The pilots even help clean up the planes to prepare it for turnaround.

Is it any coincidence Southwest is the only profitable U.S. airline and the other major carriers continue to drown in chapter 11-shaded red ink?

Related: If You Fry It, They Will Come. Cronuts and the Business Case for Imitation.

2. David Liniger, founder of Re/Max Real Estate, got the idea for how to increase realtor retention and help them grow their (and his) business from his barber. While getting a haircut, Liniger commented that he was amazed at how the shop retained the same personnel long term as opposed to his previous barbershop, which often had barbers leave to open up their own shops elsewhere.

His barber explained that unlike most shop owners, he did not require the barbers operating in his shop to give him a percentage of their sales. Rather, he simply charged them a flat fee to rent chair space in the shop and they could keep all of their profits. Liniger took the idea, named it the 100 percent solution and applied it to his real-estate business. His realtors were allowed to keep all of their commissions and only pay Re/Max a monthly fee for their office facility and equipment.

3. George Thomas, the inventor of roll-on deodorant, got the idea for roll-on technology by examining how ink flowed from a ball point pen onto paper.

In many ways, being an entrepreneur is a lot like being a coach. Both are bottom-line results-driven professions, but on a deeper level, both professions require you to be an excellent communicator, strategist and recruiter. (In my book, Seeds of Success, I discuss this concept in detail.)

The best leadership ideas that took my career to the next level were learned from what I affectionately call the “three wise men:” the CEO of a multimedia group, a preacher and a United States Marine Corps recruiter. They were all leaders readily available in my community. You have access to brain power like this in yours as well. Now in my career as a consultant and speaker, I’ve taken the same concept and some of the best ideas I apply to my work come from interviewing comedians and musicians about how they relate to their audiences and build raving fans.

You very well may have a game-changing idea right at your fingertips if you are willing to step out of the bubble that is your industry.

Innovation, productivity and advances in efficiency are rare and valuable commodities today. The most successful leaders are able to connect ideas from outside their industry to their profession and turn them into valuable learning experiences for themselves, their people and their clients.

Creative ideas will energize you and your people to achieve record-breaking results. As we’ve seen in the real estate and airline industries, this is what so often separates the best from the rest.

My question for you is who are your three wise men? Go find them, and you just might discover your own version of the 20-minute turnaround or the 100 percent solution.

Related: History's Inventive Minds Say You Don't Have to Be Original to Be Creative