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From Wannabe to Winnner: 7 Key Ingredients of Winning Organizations

By Sherilyn George-Clinton and William Harris

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Messages, meetings, memos…there’s so much to do each day, the point of doing it can get lost in the sauce.

There’s a story about two men who were chipping off chunks of granite from a large block. The first was hacking at the granite as though he was mad at it, sighing loudly and checking his watch. Asked what he was doing, he said, “Hammering this stupid rock.”

The other man was hammering at his block, occasionally standing back to admire his work. Asked what he was doing, he proudly proclaimed, “I am building a cathedral!”

Your cathedral is a winning organization, whether it’s an established corporation, a start-up, a department or a workgroup.

Here are the 7 ingredients you need to cook up that winning organization.

1. Leadership


Don’t just talk about it. Be about it.

You probably can’t name leaders whose companies made the leap from good to great and sustained that greatness. That’s because those leaders are busy doing the work to build a strong team around their purpose rather than building a cult of personality.


You do have to toot your own horn to burnish your brand, compete for resources, model leadership, or to demystify the process, but don’t blow it by making it all about you. It’s not.

Decisive, emotionally intelligent, accountable leaders — what “Good to Great” author Jim Collins calls Level 5 leaders — typically don’t dramatically fly in and save the day. They’re with their teams pushing the flywheel, making adjustments, improvements, and changes that, by the time anyone notices, look like overnight sensations.

Leadership is the spoon. You need leadership to integrate these ingredients into the mix.

2. Communication


When communication is high, trust comes more easily.

With apologies to Stephen Covey, trust and communication have a chicken-and-egg relationship. We know that the engagement we want — with internal, external, and potential customers, investors, even suppliers — requires communication. Communication. Not broadcasting.

Two-way communication fosters trust, demonstrates leaders’ empathy, helps ensure leaders have the facts that need confronting, and provides opportunities to reinforce and model the organization’s identity.

Create ways to develop dialogue. Share organizational knowledge and customs along with rules and best practices. Be open to feedback and open to change. Remain stubborn about your goals, and flexible about your methods.

3. Purpose


Start with Why.

The company’s mission statement, vision statements, and unique selling proposition are the what and the how. Purpose is the why. Why does the organization exist? Why should your people come to work in the morning? Why should anyone buy what you’re selling?

Those silly millennials want their work to have meaning, some say, sneering, too busy rolling their eyes to see that seeking purpose is neither trendy nor new.

After having survived concentration camps during World War II, psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl founded logotherapy (logo as in reason, not like the Nike swoosh). Logotherapy’s premise is that humans’ innate need for meaning is greater than the need for even power or pleasure. To over-simplify, if you know why, you can work out how.

People don’t buy what you made — they buy why you made it, according to Simon Sinek in “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.”

Zappos’s purpose is to deliver the WOW. They happen to sell shoes online. That may seem more of an ugh than a wow. The shoes they sell are available any number of places, including places you can try them on. It’s very easy to compare prices. But you’ll find the Zappos site, app, search, stock, their shipping and return policies, and their customer loyalty team all work to deliver the WOW. Zappos wows so well, they teach other companies how to do it with 3-day Culture Camps and other training offerings.

Price and specs do matter, but what the heart loves, the mind justifies. Nothing Apple makes is competitive on price. But if you buy an iPhone, you can use it as soon as you get it out the box. It’s charged. It’s intuitive. It seems Apple’s purpose is to provide things that are designed to be useful, simple, and beautiful. And that’s the why you bought.

Loyalty comes from employees, customers, and investors aligning their why with your why, even if they can’t articulate it beyond saying, “It just feels right.”

4. Diversity and Inclusion


Diversity is having different people in the room. Inclusion is having their voices heard.

Winning organizations define diversity more broadly than checking the usual boxes. The talent you need on your team may come in a different package than you expected. They may have earned their place at the table via a different route, or in a different function or industry. They may have graduated from a different school, with a different major, or in a different year than you may have expected.

Know that having a diverse team doesn’t require you to lower your standards. It does require you to understand there are ways to meet your standards that may not have occurred to you.
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That person with the unusual career track may have the planning ability and focus you value along with the commitment to excel now that they’ve arrived. Even that millennial, with the drive to make things right, may have something to contribute to your winning organization.

More diverse teams make for more profitable companies, management consultants McKinsey and Company found in 2015 and 2017.

5. Pragmatic Optimism


Keep it real.

In seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Adm. James Stockdale observed that the prisoners who survived unbroken were the ones who faced the ugly truth of their situation while maintaining unshakable faith that they would prevail. The optimists who tried to keep their spirits up by thinking, “We’ll be out by Christmas,” then “We’ll be out by Easter,” or some other arbitrary date, died of broken hearts.

The ones that knew they had no control and knew that they would overcome were the ones who survived.

In researching companies for “Good to Great,” author Jim Collins found that the leaders of winning organizations consistently confronted the brutal facts of their situation, and never doubted they would achieve greatness.

Don’t ignore market conditions. Acknowledge the challenges you face — and know you’ll win.

6. Disciplined Innovation


Preserve the core, stimulate progress.

An organization’s strong sense of identity, its purpose, helps guide its growth. Organizations that define purpose too narrowly miss opportunities and risk extinction.

Blockbuster declined to acquire the struggling Netflix in 2000.

Yahoo declined in 1998 to acquire the company that developed Page Rank, an algorithm that ranked websites’ importance and directed users to the most important sites. Yahoo wanted to keep users on Yahoo. The developers of Page Rank used that algorithm as the launchpad for Google.
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In 2002, Yahoo was in negotiations to acquire Google but couldn’t agree on the price. Maybe their purpose was to maximize next quarter’s balance sheet.

The digital camera was actually invented at Kodak, but they didn’t want to hurt their film business.

Those companies preserved the core but didn’t progress. No, they weren’t fortune tellers, but with a strong sense of Why at their core, they may not have needed one. Better communication with diverse voices could have had a crystal-ball effect.

Maybe the chemist who founded DuPont 200 years ago had an expansive view of its purpose. The company that was founded to manufacture gunpowder went on to invent Kevlar, neoprene, nylon, Teflon, and Spandex.

Listen to learn what could be developed, refined, or retired. Listen to non-customers as well as customers. Ensure ideas are nurtured. Google+ didn’t work, but they did try. Stimulate innovation by allowing the freedom to fail.


7. A Culture of Learning


Education turns mirrors into windows.

Many manufacturers refused to even meet with Sara Blakely to bring her Spanx idea to reality. One of those who refused later recounted it over dinner with his three daughters. His daughters convinced him it was a really good idea, so he called Sara the next day to tell her he was in. He probably didn’t open that conversation intending to be educated, but he learned something valuable listening to diverse voices.

Learning opportunities abound: formal training, mentoring, coaching, focus groups, surveys, social media, observations, the grapevine, innovation efforts. You’ll be prepared for change, rather than playing catch-up adapting to it.
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Winning leaders create and take advantage of opportunities to learn and to teach. Kodak was so focused on film, they dismissed the idea of pictures on a screen before they ever considered its potential. They needed to turn those mirrors into windows.

Make learning a part of your organization’s identity and make employees accountable for that learning.

A culture of learning promotes engagement, collaboration, and innovation, and ensures employees have the skills you need, making change happen more smoothly and succession planning easier.

Serve Warm


Use the spoon, Leadership, to mix Communication and Purpose. Add Diversity and Inclusion and Pragmatic Optimism. Then pour some Disciplined Innovation into the mix. Cook it in a Culture of Learning for as long as it takes. You’ll know when it’s ready.