Category Archives: Differentiators

Standing Out

I need to again give attribution to my Austrian friend. He made a comment about standing out in the crowd that rolled around in my head for a while and resulted in the following.

Standing out does not necessarily mean that you are outstanding. It will be wise to remember this. Write it on the inside of your notebook. Possibly even tattoo it on the palm of your hand in the spot where you once wrote your crib notes for tests in school. You will need to continually remind yourself of this fact as you go through your business career. That being said, while being outstanding is always nice, there is really only one way to make progress in the leadership ranks, and that is to stand out.

Standing out requires you to separate yourself from the rest of the office herd. This in itself is something of a risk. It is easy to stay quiet and do as you are told. This is also the way to be part of the crowd. The crowd is safe. If you really want to be safe you can stop reading here, and get up and go close your door, and lock it. You could also possibly put a desk or cabinet in front of it for further safety. This will assure that your door cannot be opened, from either side.

Also notice how I phrased it that you needed to stand out from the crowd and not necessarily be outstanding in the crowd. Being outstanding is always a good way to stand out, but not everyone is or even can be outstanding. As an example, let’s look at a few of the most significant military leaders for the United States in the twentieth century.

General George Patton commanded the US forces in the European theater during World War II. He graduated forty sixth out of one hundred three from the West Point Military Academy. He obviously was not outstanding at school. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander (and future president of the US) similarly graduated in the middle of his class at West Point. Similarly not outstanding at school. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the most recent of the leaders being discussed and commander of the Desert Storm operation in the 1990’s, is the only one who graduated in the top ten percent of his class at West Point.

My point here is that only one out of arguable three of the most famous military leaders of our recent times was even remotely regarded as being outstanding during their formative years in their chosen profession. To further this point (I really don’t know how I got started on this military bent other than it brings forward historical figures that we should all be familiar with), General George Custer (yes, that one of Little Big Horn fame) graduated last in his class at West Point. Yes, Last. I bring this up because it should also be noted that at the age of twenty three Custer became the youngest general in the Union army during the Civil War and was regarded as one of the Union’s bravest and best leaders. Go figure.

With all that being said, how does one stand out in business? How does one become recognized as a leader? There are many different and various paths that can be taken in order to stand out, but I think they were in general reduced down to variations of the following three by my Austrian friend; be brilliant, be vocal, or be a pain in the ass. My addition to his analysis is that it may not be just any one of these paths that can lead to success. In some instances it may require someone to be a brilliant, vocal pain in the ass.

I would like to think of myself as nominally the brilliant leader of my family’s household, but I am pretty sure that my wife just considers me to be more of just a vocal pain in the ass.

Of the four leaders previously noted, only one, Schwarzkopf was considered to be brilliant. He was outstanding at West Point and was someone who was widely considered to be very intelligent and his class rank reflected that. But here as in business (as apparently in the military) brilliance will not be enough. There were plenty of cadets who graduated ahead of both Patton and Eisenhower who were probably likewise considered to be brilliant, but for some reason did not reach the heights that Patton and Eisenhower did.

This means that it is probably not just the brilliance that is important, but more so the application of that knowledge. You would assume that all the graduates from West Point accumulated roughly the same type and level of knowledge from that intnstitution, but it was not always the “brilliant” ones that advanced. Brilliance seems to be able to provide an edge or an advantage but in and of itself probably will not carry the day. I find this point to be somewhat heartening since I did not graduate at the top of my class nor can I claim to be particularly brilliant either.

That must mean that it is the being vocal, and / or the being a pain in the ass that will have a major effect on standing out and success. When you think about it, it only makes sense. Being vocal, or the being a pain in the ass means you are communicating, and it is the communicating of your ideas, positions or solutions that will enable you to stand out.

Please don’t get me wrong. I think being smart is better than not being smart. No one likes a vocal idiot, and an ignorant pain in the ass has all the attributes that Darwin’s theory of evolution would indicate nature would select against.

Custer performed the worst at West Point, but also achieved the general’s rank far faster than any of the others we are discussing. He is also probably best remembered for his reported folly in taking a contingent of approximately 500 soldiers into battle against a force close to 2,500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors led by Chief Sitting Bull. However before that event, during the Civil War, Custer was acknowledged as a military strategist, tactician and leader who clearly proposed his goals and then would lead every one of his campaigns from the front of his column, and achieve his objective. He may have had many failings, some of which obviously may have led to his demise, but it seems that it was his ability to set and communicate his objectives (be vocal) to both his men and his superiors, and then to lead (successfully) from the front (taking the risk himself) that made him stand out from so many of the others in the military at that time.

With all that being said about Custer, it is also always a good idea to have much better information than he did when it comes to understanding any potential opposition that may be standing between you to your stated goals.

I guess you are considered vocal when your opinions, beliefs and actions are in alignment with those of your superior’s. If this is the case then it would seem that the equivalent definition of a pain in the ass would be when your opinions, beliefs and actions are not in alignment with those of your superior’s. If this is the case then it seems to me that I may have made a career out of being a pain in the ass (and not just according to my wife).

This does not mean that you should avoid being considered a pain in the ass. Most leaders that I know search out those people who have a considered different opinion from their own. As a leader I already have an opinion. I hope that it is considered and well thought out (however my wife usually doesn’t think so). I need other, different opinions to help me ascertain whether my opinion is the best one or if there are better ones out there. I can only do this when those other opinions are communicated to me.

Whether or not those communicated opinions come from people that agree with me (the vocal ones) or those that don’t (the pains in the ass), I have to figure out which are generated by the brilliant and which are not so much. Either way it is those that take a stand and put forth an opinion that get noticed. And of those it is usually the ones that have put in the effort, time and thought to intelligently support their opinion that truly stand out.

Now the last question left to resolve will be:
If I have an opinion that is different from my wife’s by logic it means that she has a different opinion from me. Does that make me a pain in her ass, or is she a pain in mine? I guess it depends on who is nominally in charge at our house.

Ouch. I think I may have to rethink that last little bit.

Secret Sauce

Do you know what your business’ “secret sauce” is? Secret sauce is the differentiator that makes your organization better at something than another organization. It can be your people, your products, and the way you do things or a combination of all three. I really don’t know where the idea of secret sauce came from. Possibly it came from the old McDonalds commercial where they are literally singing the praises of the Big Mac hamburger and they mention “…special sauce, lettuce, cheese…”. Regardless of where it came from, the idea of, and the phrase secret sauce seems to be gaining traction in the business world.

Many organizations might say that their secret sauce is their technology. This may be true for brand new or green-field type products, but for most cases I don’t think that this holds true in the longer run. Let’s look at Apple for instance. They are an acknowledged leader in several product categories, but is their “technology” really better, or so different from any other company’s? I don’t think so.

I remember seeing a rare clip of an interview of both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, where they were both on the same stage answering questions. Bill Gates was asked what he envied about Apple and Steve Jobs. His answer was very telling. He said he envied Steve Jobs “taste”. He said that Steve Jobs had a way of looking at things and creating an elegance about his products that set them apart.

I think he nailed what Apple’s secret sauce was in that one discussion. There are many MP3 players out there in the market, but none really as cool as the iPod. The same goes for the smart phone market and the iPhone. iPads and MacBooks have also been lauded for their designs, capabilities and functionalities. It is interesting that Apple had problems after Jobs left the first time then recovered and became the most valuable company in the world after he returned. Now that Jobs is gone there is a question about what is next at Apple, and what is next from Apple. It seems the start of the recent thirty five percent decline from the all time high price of Apple stock coincides pretty closely with the loss of the keeper of their secret sauce.

Understanding what your particular organization’s secret sauce is takes some significant and sometimes difficult self analysis. The question is not just what do you do well. It is also why you do it well and how you do it well.

By staying in the computing market we can see another example of this set of questions with Dell. Dell was one of the pioneers of supply chain management and mass customization production. They didn’t just build personal computers; they built you your personal computer. They did it as quickly and as cost effectively as the other PC manufacturers built their standard products. This capability was widely regarded as Dell’s secret sauce.

Unfortunately, it really wasn’t such a secret. Many companies are now using many of the ideas and principles that Dell initially pioneered and employed. There is now a question if Dell has grown too large to efficiently employ the same concepts and precepts that enabled their growth and success in the first place. There is a concern that many of Dell’s competitors are now better at the Dell model and process than Dell is. It seems that this sentiment is also reflected in Dells current stock price which is only half of its five year high price, and about twenty five percent of its all time high price.

Now Michael Dell has led a leveraged buyout of the company bearing his name, and is taking it back as a private company. It appears that he may believe that he too was a keeper of the secret sauce at Dell, like Jobs at Apple, and will now be able to rework his magic. I guess we will all see if that is indeed the case.

Instead of staying at the market – macro level, high technology type of secret sauce examples, I’ll relate one of my own. I was once involved in an organization that manufactured metal enclosures and integrated technology components into those enclosures. We didn’t make the technology components, just what was in essence the metal box that we put someone else’s components in. I’ll simplify what we did greatly by saying we bent and welded metal and turned screw drivers.

Initially the organization thought that they bent and welded metal and turned screwdrivers better than anyone else. They were sure that these types of production capabilities were their secret sauce and that they were their competitive advantage.

When we really looked at what our secret sauce was, it became apparent that we were not better at the physical production of the enclosure or the component integration. We had an enclosure design team that was able to design enclosures that did not require as much material or welding for their production that made us more cost efficient. The enclosures were designed to enable faster integration and more dense packing of the enclosed technology components. This meant it took fewer of our lower cost units to deliver the customers desired functionality than it took the competition. The design team also created superior heat exchange and dissipation capabilities that enabled the cooling of the smaller more densely packed enclosures.

It wasn’t our production capabilities that were our secret sauce as was widely thought. It was our design capabilities that were the secret sauce that enabled our production team to create a competitively advantaged product. Knowing our secret sauce enabled us to change the focus of our business. We no longer tried to out produce the competition. We focused on out designing them.

We changed our business approach from pursuing large volume opportunities where we would try and provide products based on an existing enclosure specification, to pursuing opportunities where we could generate and use our own competitively advantaged enclosure designs. It worked great. We were very successful.

I think it is pretty safe to say that most businesses like most hamburgers have the basics that are required to be successful. It is the looking for and understanding of their respective special sauces that will make them different. Understanding, protecting and leveraging each business’s secret sauce is what enables them to differentiate from the competition and be successful. The Big Mac still has its special sauce and it is still a successful product, but now other hamburgers now have their own special sauces as well, so its competitive advantage has been somewhat diminished. The same progression seems to occur with each business’s secret sauce. That would mean that new secret sauces, like new products need to be developed all the time to maintain an advantage.

It also means that regardless of how hard some businesses try, and despite what they want to believe, ketchup is not a secret sauce.