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The Best That You Can Be

November 27, 2009

Not too long ago I had the pleasure of sitting next to Bobby Knight, coach of Indiana University’s basketball team, while on a cross country flight. Coach Knight was returning from giving a basketball clinic and I was traveling to a meeting with a group of managers that had been working at turning around a troubled business.

We had a brief but pleasant conversation. I told Coach Knight about a young man who was a serious basketball player. He works hard at improving his game and hopes to be able to play at the college level in a few years. I told Coach Knight that the young man would appreciate his advice.

He took the time to make a thoughtful response and wrote a note that included the following. “The best advice I can give a young player is to work toward being the best player you can be without worrying what that is. Don’t back yourself into an end result, but concentrate on what you can do now to become the best that your abilities will allow.”

Focus on “being the best that you can be without worrying what that is.” That’s great advice for a young ball player, but it’s also great business advice. “Don’t back yourself into an end result, but concentrate on what you can do now to become the best that your abilities will allow.” That’s how successful businesses are built.

You need a vision, a dream to justify the hard work and commitment that it takes to get to the top in any endeavor. You need to have a long term perspective in order to make the correct strategic decisions. Just as the young basketball player needs the dream of a college playing career to make the sacrifices and to justify the year round commitment, the business owner needs a vision of eventual success.

For both the young hoopster and the aspiring entrepreneur to achieve that success however, the focus of attention needs to be on each day’s activities. The question is ,”What can I do today to make this a better business today?”, not “What can I do today to become a ten million dollar business?”

The business that I was visiting later that day had begun in 1985. Its energetic and personable President had a strong vision of where she wanted to take the company. In mid-1986 sales for the following year were forecast to be eighteen million, one giant step to the big time. Customer interest appeared to be sufficient to support the ambitious projection, but the company had yet to produce a profit and the systems and personnel to support an eighteen million dollar sales volume were not in place.

As the 1987 year approached, the company’s ambitious goals became too much to swallow at one time. Performance was less than desirable on the initial business, costs mounted, dissension grew, and potential customers lost interest. A business that once held great promise deteriorated rapidly. The company had focused solely on its vision of growth and had neglected to concentrate on being the “best it could be without worrying what that is.”

Although the management was replaced, many observers believed that the company would not be able to survive. Customers were disenchanted, employees were demoralized, costs were high, and cash was low. Those that remained had little choice. They did the best that they could with a few remaining orders for those customers that remained.

The new management retained their vision for a successful company, but they concentrated their daily efforts on being the “‘best that they could be without worrying what that is.” Those few remaining customers were pleased with the quality and the service that they received. After several months more orders were placed, moral picked up, costs were reduced, and the long journey back had begun.

In nine short months the company returned from the brink of disaster and had established itself as a viable enterprise with profitable operations and annual sales of nearly seven million dollars. A dramatic turnaround made not in one giant step, but rather with a daily concentration on “being the best that you can be without worrying what that is.”

When an athlete or a business person becomes preoccupied with their long term goals, they can become vulnerable to unnecessary disappointment. They may cut too many corners that will eventually prove costly or they may overlook other, more suitable opportunities that develop along the way.

The world has been blessed with great surgeons who once had been determined athletes, with small companies that became big, not by design, but rather because of performance. These successful individuals and businesses share a common commitment to excellence in all their undertakings. It was not a focus on greatness that enabled their success, but rather a concentration on excellence, step, by step, day by day. While it may seem a bit methodical to someone just beginning the journey, it is the fastest and the only way to the top, “whatever that may be”.

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