SEALs have a saying for everything. “The only easy day was yesterday.” “Everyone wants to be a frogman on Friday.” “It pays to be a winner.” “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
But my favorite may be this one: “You can’t polish a turd.”
Yes, people will grow in the job: they’ll grow in experience, knowledge, and ability. But you can’t expect anyone to grow into a commitment to excellence if he’s starting out at mediocre. It just doesn’t work that way.
There’s a great line in the film Jerry Maguire, when Dorothy (Renée Zellweger) is telling her sister why she thinks she’s falling in love with Jerry (Tom Cruise): “I love him for the man he wants to be; I love him for the man he almost is.”
Don’t do the Dorothy; don’t hire employees for the team members they almost are. Don’t hire mediocre talent. Hold the standard. Hire people who share your commitment to excellence.
Hire the Best
When you need to hire a lawyer, hire the best. When you need to hire a designer, a writer, marketer, customer service person, a CFO, hire the best.
Of course “hire the best” may mean hire the best you can, given your circumstances. Obviously, when you’re starting out, you may not be able to afford the most expensive legal firm or ad agency. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, set a standard, and hold it. Hire the best doesn’t have to mean spend the most money. Excellence doesn’t have to break the bank.
In our first year, I realized that if we were going to be creating a lot of original video content, we needed a videographer on staff. Not only that, we needed an excellent videographer on staff. At the time, I was living in Tahoe. It wasn’t like New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago where you can find first-rate talent on any block. Tahoe was not exactly a metropolis teeming with media talent. Plus, I didn’t have the budget for a position that a major established big-city talent would have commanded anyway.
I went to the local college and asked, “Who’s your best video student?” They pointed out a kid named Nick Cahill. I talked with him and brought him on, at first as an intern.
Nick is an amazing talent. He loved the work, loved what we were doing, and rose to the occasion. He’s now media director for Hurricane, and for a media company that’s a pretty serious position. In 2015, one of Nick’s photographs was selected for the cover of National Geographic magazine’s special Guide to the Night Sky issue. Excellence doesn’t come much better than that.
Strong leaders never ask their teams to do anything they aren’t willing to do themselves. That’s a core leadership principle. The corollary is also true: as a strong leader, you need to hold your team to the same standard of excellence you hold yourself.
“Improve constantly” is a mantra that needs to be at the core of your company ethic, not just for you, but for everyone on the team, too.
In practice, this means you’re always looking for ways to do it better, faster, stronger, to an even higher standard. Always pushing the envelope. Always asking those critical questions: How can we do this better? How can we take on a bigger market share? How can we double our size — triple it, increase it by 10 times?
In the SEALs, we not only train constantly, but we also train harder than we expect to have to perform. When you study the great performers — in sports, the arts, business, or any other field — you’ll always find they have undertaken massive amounts of training. And when that training is complete? Then they train some more, and harder than they expect to perform. Why? Training builds confidence and ensures peak performance. Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.
Over the course of the seven months of BUD/S, we performed a huge range of brutally difficult tasks in all kinds of punishing environments (SEAL stands for sea, air, and land — in other words, the capacity to perform at maximum tolerances in any environment.
But even with all those different disciplines and fiendishly difficult field conditions — BUD/S was really designed to teach us just one point: that we could perform far beyond what we thought were our limits. That most people are capable of 10 times the output they have come to accept as “normal.” Some absorbed that lesson; some didn’t. Those who did went on to become SEALs. In business, those who learn that same lesson go on to achieve success at the top of their field because they continually expect more from themselves.
Look at a Beethoven or a Picasso: they were constantly pushing themselves. The work they created late in their lives was nothing like what they’d done 20 or 30 years earlier. They never stopped exploring and stretching their own boundaries. That’s what you have to do in business. Get better, smarter, clearer, more attuned. Become a better judge of character. Gain a larger perspective. If you are an excellent CEO, then I should be able to pluck you out of your current business and drop you in the CEO’s chair of any major business in America, and within less than 30 days — hell, less than 10 days — you should be not only running that business but already coming up with ways to improve it. Not because you know that particular business, but because you know how to learn.
What’s more, excellence is contagious. It’s your own drive for excellence that motivates not only you but also those around you. Great players want to be on great teams. If you want excellence in your team, they need to see it in you. Change has to start in you before you can expect it in others.
And then, expect it in them.
Pretty simple, isn’t it?
This is an excerpt from former Navy SEAL turned CEO and New York Times bestselling author Brandon’s book, Total Focus. You can purchase the book here.