There’s a time when we all push back from the table and say, in so many words, “I think that’s about it…” and the assumption rebounds around the room that there’s “someone” who is going to button up the last details. If you work in the sorts of companies I’ve worked in for 20+ years – and have bumped into over the past several as a consultant – you quickly understand that that “someone” doesn’t actually exist.
Your job – all of our jobs, actually – is to finish the job. And this is hard because in most modern corporations, particularly in “corporate America,” we’re not paid to do this. It sounds odd, but it’s true. We’re paid to do lots of things just well enough. Our quarterly objectives are loaded with big moving parts, and our incentives are built in such a way as to ensure we hit them and quickly move on. It’s in this gap, however, between the point that most people move on and the first contact with the customer, that the real competitors emerge and the game is won or lost.
Jim Koch, founder and CEO of The Boston Beer Company, described this difference in focal length to me when I spoke to him last year. He was speaking of whether a big international brewery could do what he’s done with Sam Adams beer, but his comments apply directly to our topic here. “Could a giant do what we do? They could…but it isn’t the business they’re in,” he said. “This would be a twelve to eighteen month project for an assistant brand manager,” at the end of which, he continued, they’d expect to be promoted and moved on to a bigger, better role. “For us, it’s our life’s work. It’s my life’s work.”
We win against bigger and stronger competitors in business because we stick with it and do what they can’t afford to do. We have more focus. We’re not moving on so quickly. This is where we choose to stand and fight and ultimately win. I heard this story time and time again in writing Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath in Your Industry (Portfolio, 2011) and have found it to be true in my consulting life, as well. We win when we choose to see the job through, past the finish line – well past the point that others have declared their job done.
What does this mean to a business person today?
Concentrate more on finishing than on starting. There are a hundred separate line item details you need to account for when you would otherwise think that you’re crossing the finish line. Anyone can start well, but it’s the game changers that have the mind-set that finishing well is more important.
No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. Author Steven Pressfield called this “second act problems,” and the description fits. We lose the path somewhere after the beginning, and we have to fight through “the belly of the beast” where everything seems to be going wrong all at once. It’s easy to lose heart here. You can’t. Because if you don’t see it through, that mythical “somebody” won’t either.
Big picture thinkers are a dime a dozen, but “handlers” are worth their weight in gold. There’s always someone who you can throw a sticky, unglamorous task to and just say, “Handle it” without having to worry about whether the job will be done well or not. Your “handler” can handle it. They’re often unsung heroes in lower level jobs. If you ever find one, keep her number handy.
Jim Koch’s focal length is different from the assistant brand manager’s at that generic brewery. That’s probably why Jim’s competitors brew such generic beer. He’s in it for the long haul. He views his job as “changing how America thinks about beer.” He won’t rest until you, too, burn with the same passion and care about this interesting 10,000 year old human tradition. He’s going to stay right here and finish the job, in other words, long after his metaphorical competitor has dusted themselves off and moved on to the next objective of their quarterly objectives.
Giant killers are the ones that stick with it and win after the other guy figures the game is already over.