By Eric Brisbon

Every once in a while something happens that you might consider great.  The dictionary defines great as, “Of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above the normal or average.”  This could be translated to great people, great times, or great events.  Depending on which part of speech you choose to classify greatness in, it all leads to the same place; a cut above.

Most people aspire to greatness, although we may define it in different ways.  Watching Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes and seize the Triple Crown was great.  Neil Armstrong “Taking a large step for mankind” by setting foot on the moon was enormous.  Mohammad Ali’s career was certainly something to admire. Even Santana, a bunch of kids at the time, playing a flawless rendition of Soul Sacrifice at Woodstock while tripping on acid is arguably unbelievable.

Conversely, pulling Jessica McClure from a well after being trapped for 58 hours, or Americans landing on the beach at Normandy, or even New York citizens coming together on 9/11 show great events of humankind, but t hey might also be described at miraculous.

The list could go on and on and on depending who you ask.  A professor once asked his students to write down a company they considered “great”.  Most of the responses given were what you might expect to hear such as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Ebay, etc. This thought was all based on the premise that these companies are huge and some of the richest men on the planet where part of them.  Also, they provided great something that fundamentally changed way we live.  One more obscure answer came from a quiet guy in the back of the room who said, “Pete’s HVAC Company.”

When asked why he picked that HVAC company, he told a story of his grandmother who lost her heat late on that very cold Christmas Eve.  Pete was called and had her fixed and warm in about an hour and even gave her a candy cane with a holiday wish.  To him, this company is great.

Do most companies aspire to greatness?  Common sense would say they would, as this seems to be connected to overall perception of companies as discussed.  Also many people in the workforce want to work for “great” companies. But what really defines greatness?

Is a company that allows you global information at the touch of a keypad but also has arguably the largest data base on the planet full of personal information (for sale) great?  Is a company that has put digital computing in your pocket yet taken our children out of their back yards and put them in front of a computer screen great?  Is a company that delivers most anything you want to your front door yet has put thousands of stores out of business great?  Well, that depends on your point of view.

While the definition of greatness is rather straight forward, how you relate it to a company is seemingly more of a challenge.  Most board rooms don’t have a greatness goal or a set of indicators around that requirement. They are always much more tangible like revenue, inventory turns, ROI, ROA, margin, etc. Frankly, many companies have no desire to be great.  They want to be profitable and make their shareholders rich which, ironically, is their definition of greatness.

Having said that, most companies will not be around long if they are not profitable and providing a level of return on their investments.  That’s Business101. But how you attain that goal may be the difference.  Delorean had financial problems and turned to cocaine smuggling.  Highly profitable, great ROI just happened to be illegal. Caterpillar had a long hard strike years ago that threatened their market share and customer deliveries.  They shut down all of their indirect activities and put all office folks on the factory floor making product while they resolved the contract negotiations.  Their customer commitment came first.

Great companies, after cutting through all the perceptions of wealth, product niceties or marketing spin usually boils down to three things.  Give you customer a consistent quality part or service, do it in a timely fashion and do it the highest of ethics and values the odds are good you will grow and prosper.  Loss sight of any of those  goals and trouble times may be in your future as the competition will recognize it and target your weakness’s and ultimately your markets.

Certainly, sound practice of the above three goals give you no guarantee of greatness or even longevity, but without them success is much more questionable and greatness is only a term in a book.  The next time you are questioning doing business with a great company or if you work for a great company, see if your answer meets or misses those three requirements. 

When you think about a great company it normally revolves around the product you get (good widget, great food, perfect gym layout, or an excellent repair) and if they do it as promised (phone calls, follow-ups, detailed billing) and how was I treated (polite people, listened and made it easy).  You will not only go back to these companies, you will recommend them.  Similarly, people will normally say they work for a great company when the company values revolve around them (recognition, great flow of information, treated with respect, fair pay).

The recipe for greatness is actually pretty simple.  Getting to it however is a never ending challenge that separates the real leaders in industry from the slackers.  Which one are you?