The Secret Weapon 2 Famous Founders Deployed to Build Their Mega-Successful Companies
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Businesses can outperform their competitors when they're direct reflections of their founders' unique vision. To illustrate, consider this two-part pop quiz:
- Which company is infused with a zen-like commitment to simplicity? Hint: It bucks the status quo and forges new frontiers (or, at least, it used to).
- Which company is especially analytical? (Hint: Each move is as carefully calculated as a chess grandmaster's, and it thinks many years in advance to achieve market dominance.)
If you guessed Apple and Amazon, in that order, you’re right. Apple is still driven to create the sleek, simple designs that captivated Steve Jobs. That's why in the second quarter of 2018 alone the company sold more than 52 million iPhones.
And, Amazon, somewhat by contrast, excels at leveraging data for strategic purposes. That's a trait exemplified by its founder, Jeff Bezos. Data, in fact, is how Amazon has been able to revolutionize direct-to-consumer selling, completely cutting out legacy retailers, such as Walmart.
Jobs and Bezos recognized their core values early on. They then translated those values into a vision, turned the vision into a reality and built an empire on a foundation that was natural for them. The message: Companies are better off when they understand who they are and how they excel. And that understanding originates with the founder.
Turning core strengths into confident startups
I fully believe that entrepreneurs are made, not born, but some aspects of our earliest selves end up propelling our professional lives. In other words, the seeds of success are there from the start.
This is a lesson I learned after attending a recent workshop on finding your core values. The moderators -- Cesar Quintero, coach at Entrepreneurs' Organization, and Fran Biderman-Gross, CEO of Advantages -- explained that our core values are developed early in life as we learn about consequences, explore risks and develop decision-making patterns.
Those values are the fundamental aspects of our being, which means they're also our greatest strengths. How do you translate those values into business growth? I've relied on the following three-step approach:
1. Do some soul-searching.
In 1974, Jobs famously embarked on a spiritual journey in India. He was 19 years old, and just two years later, he would found Apple. You don't have to travel the world to nail down your values, though. In the workshop, we took the CliftonStrengths test to find the top five strengths that determine how we behave and what we value. Then, to capture our core values, we found ways to translate each of those strengths into deliverable assets by using active, positive language.
For instance, the test revealed that I, personally, am good at seeing patterns where others see complexity. That means I'm able to "simplify complexity" and "craft solutions." Understanding this makes it easy to communicate my true value to potential clients or business partners.
Scientific research backs the value of understanding yourself, too. A study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that when we see ourselves more clearly, our confidence and creativity enjoy a boost. Other benefits? We make better decisions, cultivate more resilient relationships and communicate more clearly, according to other studies.
2. Turn your business into a reflection of yourself.
Being aware of your core values is one thing, but if you don’t know how to use them, they won’t make a difference. Jobs and Bezos both established innovative companies that embodied their core strengths. And they grew those companies into giants by surrounding themselves with like-minded people. You should do the same.
When you have a team of employees who share your core values, you have a tight-knit, powerful force. Research from Gallup showed that among companies studied, such value sharing helped prompt an 8 percent decrease in turnover and a 4 percent increase in profitability. So when you're conducting interviews, give candidates a plus or minus for each similarity and difference -- just keep in mind that hires should be complementary to your values, not necessarily identical.
Communicating the values of the company and evaluating performance in that context is important, too.
Consequently, applying core values is about weeding out those who don't reflect them -- whether that's employees or clients. For example, in my business, NY Book Editors, we value the time and effort that goes into learning from editors and crafting prose accordingly. Authors who believe an editor can raise a magic wand and transform their prose aren’t the right fit for us.
3. Turn abstract ideas into concrete actions.
Core values can't be abstract ideas. They must be clear and direct enough to animate every aspect of what a company does. Rackspace is a company that lives and breathes its core values -- even though it has more than 6,000 employees and $2 billion in annual revenue. One of its core values is what it calls fanatical support. To keep that value in mind, employees vote for their "fanatic of the month," who then receives a straitjacket to wear -- which is considered an honor.
Companies find different ways to keep their values alive and well. Bezos, for instance, reserves an empty seat at the conference table for "the most important person" -- the customer. Personally, I've found that articulating values at the start of meetings helps to weave them into the fabric of my company. I also strive to embody those values in everything I do, essentially setting a model for my team. This is what it takes to ensure that core values are institutional, rather than individual, characteristics.
In my early days as an entrepreneur, I thought I needed to learn another language, pick up coding skills and gain incredible networking skills. Those skills are certainly valuable in their own way, but I've found that the most important lever to my success was identifying how to use my existing core strengths.
As it turns out, the greatest asset any entrepreneur has is his or her own self.