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It’s Better to be a Malcontent Than a Has-Been

Originally published: 04.01.12 by Michael Feuer


Take time to celebrate success, but then push teams on to the next goal to keep on winning.

Every company’s mission statement should contain what the Federal Drug Administration calls a “black-box warning.” This is similar to what appears on each pack of cigarettes and on numerous medications approved by the FDA. For companies, a comparable admonishment should be: “Complacency is a silent value destroyer that can cause your business to fall behind competitors.” Remember you are in a race that has no finish line.

Most companies promote the promise of complete satisfaction to their customers, which is a good thing. However, fostering a state of satisfaction and contentment within your company’s culture is not. Am I promoting that all business leaders become malcontents? Yes, pretty much. To do otherwise can stifle innovation. You can bet that right this minute, others are thinking about how they can do what you do better, faster, and cheaper.

Forget for a moment that it’s politically correct to assert that competition is good. Frankly, as a CEO, I never once recall jumping out of bed in the morning and screaming, “Yippee, maybe today I’ll get a new competitor!” Yes, competition makes us all better but not

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without considerable pain — both financial and emotional. That’s why the best of the best leaders suffer from various degrees of “F of F,” or fear of failure. F of F is one of the strongest drivers known to spur improvement. Every time you think you have it knocked, some competitor that was lurking in the shadows seems to appear almost out of nowhere with a different twist or turn of your contraption or business that makes your heart skip a beat. And that skip ain’t caused by love or happiness.

For survival, you must confront the potential of a new interloper head on. It is altogether fitting that your team pauses to celebrate a success. If you don’t, your troops will rightfully perceive you as an ungrateful curmudgeon or an unrelenting taskmaster — although there probably is some underlying truth in these assumptions.
A quick round of praise and toasting after a win are always appreciated by those involved. However, as soon as the party glasses are cleared from the table, it’s time to start planning your next iteration. This is just a simple matter of survival of the fittest. I’m frequently asked, “What are you going to do now that the big job is done?” My response is always, “If I’m doing my job efficiently, I’ll never be done.” Just look around and you will find examples of too many great ideas that were translated into a finished “must-have” product, only to, in short order, wilt and die on the vine. Does anyone remember Polaroid Instant Cameras, Sony Betamax Recorders, or Microsoft’s WebTV? All were initially heralded as the next best thing, only to fall from grace when the next generation was introduced — by a shrewd and heartless competitor.

How do you keep your organization energized knowing that once they’re done reaching a goal they’ll have to do it all over again, and then again and again? One effective method is to have more than one team ready in the wings to begin working on the same project. When Team A is done, the next new and improved version becomes the job of Team B. While Team B picks up the gauntlet, the original team starts on something completely different. Team A is satisfied by its accomplishments and can savor the moment while team members gain enthusiasm for their next undertaking. Team B, meanwhile, is motivated to top its predecessor with improvements that the first group may not have even envisioned. Competition within your own organization sure beats the competition that comes from outside.

As the leader, your job is to be not only the chief cook and bottle washer but also the head pot stirrer, always prodding the search for the unexplored or the unimagined. Some cynics may call you a malcontent but so be it, because if you’re not, you are almost guaranteed to be called much worse — a has-been.

Michael Feuer is co-founder of the mega office products retail chain OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. Michael Feuer appears courtesy of a partnership with Smart Business,www.sbnonline.com, which originally published this column.


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