Breaking Bad (#102)

To be great, organizations and individuals alike need to be embrace their bad side.

I don’t mean bad in the behavioral sense. I mean being clear about what you’re not going to be good at.

This was a key message Francis (Fran) Frei gave in her presentation to an audience of business leaders last year. Fran, a bestselling author and speaker on leadership and customer service, shared a few examples of this:

  • Southwest Airlines built its business on low fares, excellent customer service and punctuality. The airline intentionally decided to be bad at convenience, on-board amenities and an extensive route network. The result? Southwest Airlines made more money over a twenty-year period than every other US airline combined.
  • Ikea created a new market for furniture by deciding to be bad at assembly, quality and convenience of store locations. Instead, they focused on being great on price, systems, and creating stylish furniture for small spaces. By targeting buyers who wanted all of the later and cared less about the former, they’ve built revenues estimated at $37B this year.

What’s interesting is that there are smart business consultants who might come in to these organizations and suggest that they work on improving in the areas they’ve chosen to be bad at.

What they’d be missing is that the areas these companies are “bad” in aren’t important to their potential customers. What’s more is that trying to be great at everything is more likely to dilute or even damage the value proposition that got them to be market leaders in the first place.

Both Southwest Airlines and Ikea made very conscious and strategic choices about where they wanted to be bad.

We each face similar decisions in our personal and professional lives. More often than not, we try to do many things well rather than figuring out the handful of things we’re good at that are most important.  Once we’ve figured out what those select things are, we should be unapologetic about being bad at things that fall outside of that.

Trying to be good at everything just doesn’t work.

In her talk, Fran shared another example of working parents she had studied and the differences in their happiness levels. The ones who were unhappy and stressed were trying to be good at everything in their lives simultaneously. The ones who were happier were clearer about the things they had the bandwidth to be good at (e.g. their jobs, their family relationships, etc.). They were also more willing to let other things fall by the wayside, either permanently or temporarily. In other words, they had unapologetically embraced being bad at them.

One of the first steps on this path is giving up the guilt about what you are bad at. Even though I have written a lot about the important of excellence, breaking the habit of feeling guilt about things I’m bad at is something I’ve been working on these past few years. By playing to my strengths, I’ve been able to have a bigger impact on my employees, my friends and my family.

So, how do we know when we need to be good or bad?

We need to be excellent at what matters most, whether that’s ourselves, our team or our customers. And we need to give ourselves permission to be bad at the things that these same parties don’t care about.

It never feels natural to be bad. What’s important to remember is that it’s in the service of being great at things that matter more. Remember, if you try to be everything to everyone, you will just end be being nothing to no one.

Quote of the Week

“Choosing bad is your only shot at achieving greatness. And resisting it is a recipe for mediocrity.”

Frances Frei

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Showing Some Love (#67)

It’s hard to turn on the news these days. Between partisan politics, random acts of violence, and company scandals, we’re inundated with stories about people and businesses treating each other poorly.

Nowhere was this more evident than when United Airlines visibly dragged a passenger off an airplane this week because he refused to be bumped from an overbooked flight. The man was a doctor and had surgeries scheduled for the next morning. Apparently, United couldn’t get anyone to accept their final offer to give up their seat, so front-line employees decided it would be better to resort to brute force and physically remove a paying passenger from the plane.

Companies spend millions of dollars a year on advertising to attract customers, yet, when they have the chance to embrace relationships with their current customers, they repeatedly fail.

Contrast the actions of these United employees with those of Southwest Airlines. In 2015, they forever changed the lives of Peggy Uhle and her son. Peggy’s Southwest flight from Raleigh-Durham to Chicago was getting ready to take off when the pilot suddenly turned around and headed back to the gate. Peggy was asked to get off the plane, which led her to assume that she had boarded the wrong flight. What she discovered, however, was that her son had been in a terrible accident in Denver and was in a coma.

Not only had the gate attendant re-booked her on the next direct flight to Denver, Southwest employees offered her a private waiting area, rerouted her luggage, let her board first, and gave her a boxed lunch when she got off the plane. They also delivered her luggage to where she was staying, never asked for payment, and an employee even called to ask how her son was doing.

While the press and goodwill Southwest Airlines received from this incident was significant, it was not the driving force behind their actions. The employees were simply demonstrating Southwest’s core purpose to “Connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, low-cost air travel.”

These values empowered key stakeholders (the employees) to do what was right for the customer, without question or hesitation. Contrast this with United who, very generically, aspires to be the “airline of choice.” In fact, the only other reference to core values I could find online was a very legally worded “code of ethics and conduct overview

There are a few key takeaways from these contrasting stories. The first is that the culture and values we create in our business and homes will lead to specific behaviors by our employees and family – for better or for worse. Therefore, it’s imperative that we be very clear and explicit about what we stand for in terms of each.

The other major lesson is that we need to focus more on seeing people as human beings, not simply as a client, partner, or competitor. If we treat them with respect and/or help them selflessly in a time of need, we will create more positive outcomes all around. United employees decided it was better to drag a passenger off a plane than to up their $800 offer and own their mistake. Southwest just decided to do the right thing. Karma took care of the rest.

Quote of The Week

“A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.”

Herb Kelleher (founder of Southwest)

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