For over three decades, Bryan Nann has researched what drives excellence across a variety of fields from Business & Governance to Academics & Sports. As an entrepreneur and executive within Fortune 500 companies over the last 18 years, he has systematized the key transferable skills necessary for effective professionals. Since 2009 Bryan has been focused on individuals of historical and biographical significance. Mapping and modeling the common denominators for sustaining excellence, he has brought them together in a simple and cohesive formula.
Recently, my organization asked all leadership to read and analyze the book, “Achieve with Accountability”, by Mike Evans. It’s a short and insightful reminder that builds off of the works of the late Dr. Stephen Covey. The essential premise is that we are all, response “able”…that is, responsible for self management. The idea that there is a space between stimulus and response in which we have a choice. In other words, the idea of leadership, management and responsibility all begin in the mirror. Coincidently I recently interviewed a top leader in the Southern Arizona are who stated,
“I’d say that the most critical element in life and business is the ability to look at yourself in the mirror, each day and ask the tough questions.”
This concept, however, is not new. In researching ‘people of excellence’ over the last decade this idea of self-management, introspection and personal accountability appears again and again. In fact, I suggest that this is at the heart of what I’ve called the “Circle of Mental Excellence”.
Several centuries before Evans and Covey, Miyamoto Musashi eluded to this same concept in his, “Book of Five Rings”. For him, having a strategy as a warrior, in life or in business included this daily self-management. Often interpreted by the phrases below, I suggest that it goes much deeper than looking within. The path of excellence or ‘the way’ as Musashi puts it involves both having a strategy as well as daily execution. The discipline to execute daily must come from that person in the mirror.
Lastly, the idea of teams, organizations and cultures begin with this process. This is why the “Circles of Excellence” begin with the individual and work there way out, like the rings of tree growth or the development of our solar system relies on the sun and what happens in its core. Over twenty years of management and leading others, I’ve often summarized this in these maxims;
“Lead and manage yourself, so others will not have to come in and manage for you”
“You will only be able to lead and manage others as effectively as you manage and lead yourself”
At some level, every organization, whether a for-profit business, not for profit and even governmental organizations all have a variant of these five elements. They may use different terminologies, philosophies and vary with regards to when these elements become most relevant. They are there nonetheless….and how they work together determines the long-term effectiveness of an organization.
“Sales closes the first deal and operations closes the next ten, or doesn’t”
“You must study this in great detail” -Miyamoto Musashi
And that’s Wright as in The Wright Brothers. Wilbur and Orville Wright have been credited by history for being the first in controlled, powered flight as well as first to bring their planes to market for sale. There were naturally many other inventors and tinkerers fighting with them for the prestigious title and the Wrights fought relentlessly to the first position. But is being first always best?
In his book, Originals, Adam Grant argues that coming in second if often more advantageous than being in first. Being second allows for stepping back and seeing the accomplishment from an objective view whereas the first place winner can often get caught up or overly preoccupied in the winners circle. This preoccupation can lead to narrowed thinking, not learning from mistakes or a lack of desire to continue to innovate. This is precisely how it played out for the Wright Brothers.
The Wrights, preoccupied with protecting their distinction, would go on to spend many years embroiled in law suits over patents much to the detriment of their health and company. They refused to look at better ways of building an airplane. Their “wing warping” design, although original, was rudimentary and less effective. Their stubbornness would result in the first aerial fatality in 1908 and cost them a successful partnership with the US military.
The Wright’s second place archrival, Glenn Curtiss, saw the advantage of being second. Although he spent years fighting off the legal pursuits of the Wright Brothers, his real focus was on building better, then best aircraft. He did and landed many large contracts during WWI and WWII. His aircraft became some of the most popular of the early 20th Century. He eventually sold his stake in the company for a hansom profit and later formed 18 other companies throughout his lifetime. In an ironic twist of fate, the Curtis Company would end up acquiring the Wright’s company in 1929 to form the Curtiss –Wright Company.
“Learn to see the advantages and disadvantages of each thing”
In other words, if you want to manage and lead others, you must first be able to manage and lead yourself in a comprehensive way. Perhaps you have no desire to manage or lead anyone and that’s ok. Self-management is the best way to avoid having others step in and manage in ways that you may not favor.
According to the Wikipedia definition, “The term ikigaicompounds two Japanese words: iki (wikt:生き) meaning “life; alive” and kai (甲斐) “(an) effect; (a) result; (a) fruit; (a) worth; (a) use; (a) benefit; (no, little) avail” (sequentially voicedas gai) “a reason for living [being alive]; a meaning for [to] life; what [something that] makes life worth living; a raison d’etre.”
In people who have managed to find and sustain excellence throughout their lives, this concept of Ikigai repeatedly comes up as a common denominator. For some it can be as simple as family and children while others will have a more complex definition.
Socrates, for example, famously said that “An unexamined life is not worth living”. Albert Einstein often made references to his curiosity about the universe as his biggest personal drive.
Ikigai, like excellence, can be found by anyone…So what is your IKIGAI?
The concept of Mindfulness is very rapidly becoming a new buzzword amongst business and organizational development leaders. In an age of ever-increasing information overload and diminishing returns in productivity, more and more professionals are seeking new ways to increase both energy and focus. With the aid of modern scientific and medical research, many have discovered that these concepts are in fact far more than esoteric feel-good techniques.
Additionally, thanks to the work of leaders like Dan Buettner with Blue Zones and his book Thrive, the age-old idea that longevity is a balanced strategy has begun to wed itself to the business world.
Latest amongst the new buzzwords, Harvard Business Review adds their own term…Self-care into the mix in the article below.
He had little interest in going to West Point. Yet he became one of the most influential figures of the American Civil War
He had frequent attacks on his character, like the myth that he was an alcoholic. Yet he never wavered in his resolve
He was a mild-mannered, perhaps even introverted man. Yet his leadership inspired both sides of a torn nation
He had no interest in politics. Yet he rose to the call of President of United States when his nation needed him
Ulysses Hyriam Grant serves as a great example of an ordinary man who found excellence and remained committed to it throughout his life. As a result, he was well positioned when the circumstances of history knocked at his door. Like all people who have found excellence, he had a personal code of sorts that he lived by and influenced his every action.
Not everyone will grow up to become President of The United States and history typically only has room for one; Steve Jobs, Einstein, Ben Franklin or Gandhi. And that’s ok because success is a purely subjective term and excellence can be found without necessarily achieving fortune or fame.
In fact there are probably far more examples of people who have found excellence in their personal and professional lives, most have seemingly ordinary careers such as insurance agents, fire fighters, teachers and many others. What’s different about these people is their unrelenting sense of purpose, to do more. They refuse to live within the median and this competitive spirit is not with others but with the person in the mirror.
Amongst these people who seem to find and sustain excellence, there are many common denominators. They share many of the same attitudes and philosophies, focus on developing the same types of skills and have the same balanced approach to career and living. To illustrate, here is an example of one theme that comes up over and over with the concept of excellence.
The Skill That Changed Everything
It was over twenty years ago when I first heard the phrase that would become a core business axiom and it would be much later when I began to appreciate and understand its depth. I was asking a respected business mentor whether or not I should take a job in a very unglamorous industry and he said, “it’s all the same, regardless of the industry, sales is sales. Products are all the same; it’s a can of soup on a shelf. If people are hungry, they will buy it. Would you care if you were selling toilet seats if the money was good?” He was never one to sugar coat anything but his philosophy would prove to be both profound and recurring.
“It’s a can of soup, on a shelf. If people are hungry they will buy it.”
A little over a decade later, this idea would reemerge in a significant way. This time it was over dinner conversation with my father-in-law. A man whom I have great respect and admiration for, both as a mentor and someone committed to excellence in all things, he does not come across as a “sales man”. A Vietnam veteran, my father-in-law has both the discipline and confidence of a military man yet a calming demeanor much like my own father. Further, with over forty years of business success, my father-in-law’s words carry credibility worth careful consideration.
When our conversation turned to sales, it caught me off guard when he stated, “it really does matter what industry you’re in or job you have, it’s all sales”. Over the next few weeks I would ponder that statement. That pondering became an experiment to test my father-in-law’s theory that would last for the next few years.
“It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or job you have, it’s all sales.”
Testing The Theory
Over the next few years, the goal of the experiment was simple, “find a profession that did not involve sales at any level”. Starting with the easy stuff, I interviewed people who excelled within the traditional core areas of business and asked the questions;
What is Customer Service?Selling the experience to the end user so that they will come back and tell others.
What is Human Resource?Selling the benefits and opportunities of a career within our company.
What is Recruiting?Selling an applicant on working at our company
What is an Interview?Selling yourself to get the job
Next, I challenged any associate to pick a profession that they believed did not involve sales. Subsequently, I would find someone who excelled in that profession and interview them without any tipoff as to the real topic of interest. At some point I would ask the question, “Do you think that your profession involves sales at any level?” Here are some of the responses over the years;
Police Officers:“Absolutely, the toughest part of our job is selling ourselves in the community”
Teachers:“Of course, we’re selling the love of learning”
Preachers:“In a sense, yes. We’re influencing people on the fate of their soul”
The point was driven home when I spoke to John, a noted PhD and extremely busy archeologist who stated,
“Are you kidding me? Have you ever tried to get funding for a dig? You have to put a proposal together then pitch it to those who have the money. Then you have to put a team together and pitch them on being on the project. Then you have to sell the results so the project doesn’t get cut off.”
Pink & Others Bring It Home
In 2012, author Daniel Pink published the book; To Sell Is Human, The Surprising Truth about Moving Others. In it he combines the recent history of sales from the time of The Fuller Brush Man with sound research to validate the idea that every profession involves influencing others to action. In other words, it’s all sales. In an interesting twist of irony, I sat down with my father-in-law when the book was published to discuss it as well as my findings. He informed me that his father was one of the famous Fuller Brush Men.
More recently Inc.com posted the article below where Mark Cuban further validates the idea sales is a core skill related to sustained excellence.
If that is not evidence enough, consider the recent presentation by Michael Bidwill, President of the Arizona Cardinals Football Club at the recent Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce luncheon. There he talked about business leaders responsibility to promote and sell the economic development of their communities. He cited Arizona Governor, Doug Ducey, as an excellent example of a civic leader selling his state across a global landscape.
Finding and sustaining excellence does not make a person perfect, nor will it ensure fame or fortune. It also won’t ensure one a good person. It can however lead to a greater depth of purpose in personal as well as professional life. There are common denominators to excellence in all things, embracing those skills is key to sustaining excellence. Chief among them is the idea that, “it’s all sales”.
I love libraries for many reasons, first and foremost they are are piece of history. For Western civilization, they stand as the icon of learning dating back to ancient Greece.
Libraries serve as the ultimate example of higher learning, available to anyone regardless of social or economic standing.
Libraries are a place of quiet contemplation
Today’s libraries with internet, wifi, computer and video resources provide information and resources to the public unlike any time in human history.
Then there are the books, rows and rows of books.
Now if libraries would offer fresh coffee, I’d never have another meeting in a coffee house of any kind!
There are also many examples of people who have found and sustained excellence because of the public library. Most notably is Mark Twain. With the death of his father at age eleven, he was forced to go to work and his formal education came to an end. He would go on to self-educate solely in public libraries and be awarded two honorary doctorate degrees.