The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success
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What Does it Take to Get Ahead Now—And Stay There?
High performance has always required shrewd strategy and superb execution. These factors remain critical, especially given today’s unprecedented business climate. But Rich Karlgaard—Forbes publisher, entrepreneur, investor, and board director—takes a surprising turn and argues that there is now a third element that’s required for competitive advantage. It fosters innovation, it accelerates strategy and execution, and it cannot be copied or bought. It is found in a perhaps surprising place—your company’s values.
Karlgaard examined a variety of enduring companies and found that they have one thing in common; all have leveraged their deepest values alongside strategy and execution, allowing them to fuel growth as well as weather hard times. Karlgaard shares these stories and identifies the five key variables that make up every organization’s “soft edge”:
- Trust: Northwestern Mutual has built a $25 million dollar revenue juggernaut on trust, the foundation of lasting success. Learn how to create an environment that engenders trust and propels high performance.
- Smarts: In most technical fields your formal education quickly becomes out of date. How do you keep up? Learn how the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University women’s basketball team, and others stay on top by relentlessly pursuing an advantage through smarts.
- Teamwork: Since collaboration and innovation are a must in the global economy, effective teamwork is vital. Learn how global giant FedEx stays focused and how nimble Nest Labs relies on lean teams with cognitive diversity.
- Taste: Clever product design and integration are proxies for intelligence because they make customers feel smart. But taste goes further into deep emotional engagement. Specialized Bicycles calls it “the elusive spot between data truth and human truth.” How can you consistently make products or services that trigger these emotional touch points?
- Story: Companies that achieve lasting success have an enduring and emotionally appealing story. What’s your company’s story? How do you tell it your way? Gain the ability to create a powerful narrative in a world where outsiders often exercise the louder voice.
of oddball entertainment from a magician and a country guitarist who played Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”—quite a feat for one guitarist—Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske took the stage. A big man who looks like an ex–Green Bay Packer, he began to speak about Northwestern Mutual’s values. Suddenly I had a vision of being transported back in time—to a mid-twentieth-century America, when business salesmen (nearly all men then) would read books like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, Dale
his financial reps in their goofy ribbons and plain suits represent an ethic and spirit that many of us laugh at with our cool kid friends but secretly miss: trust and earnestness. In a culture of rising cynicism and distrust, Northwestern Mutual dares to be the old-fashioned George Baileys of the financial services industry. Steady as she goes for over 157 years, always taking the call when the accident occurs or the cancer diagnosis comes in, this company has become the largest life insurer in
trust advantages. One is its sheer longevity. The company has been around since 1857—a period that covers a civil war, two world wars, and two dozen recessions. Two, Northwestern Mutual is owned by its customers. “We can afford to make payouts that will hurt our earnings in the short run,” said CEO John Schlifske. “A shareholder-owned insurance company will always face a trade-off between customer interests and shareholder interests.” A third advantage, and related to the second, is the strength
what? Surveys and follow-up questionnaires revealed a higher level of satisfaction among patients (oops, customers) and providers. As a bonus, the people at Mayo Clinic also realized that with their optimized care teams, they could offer care to triple the number of patients. That’s right—not a 5 percent or 10 percent increase, but three times as many. Mayo is effectively multiplying its doctors by three and improving health at the same time. Increased convenience and increased efficiency: so
as well as one of the most-researched topics in marketing. Even when a product is new or novel to the point of being revolutionary, people still need to associate with it. They need to connect with it and understand it at first glance. In many cases, a successful product is an iterative design that evolved from an earlier, innovative icon. Which means that if you keep an archetype elegant as it evolves, you can keep it iconic. Specialized’s Turbo combines the look of a vintage Stumpjumper