Competing was always around in my childhood. My father, for example, rarely played golf without there being some contest conjured up. I was also taught that how you play the game counts. In other words, play to win but play fair, respect the opponents and teammates, and no temper tantrums. He treated all people with respect. If they didn’t deserve respect, he simply didn’t associate with them in the future.
Sportsmanship was important. It was a compliment to be told that I was a “good sport,” whether that was because I was gracious in winning or because I was gracious in losing.
By the Rules
Cheating was not allowed, and it was devastating if I was caught not playing by the rules. People made allowances for ignorance, but there was always a warning to make sure to learn the rules before playing the game. And we were expected to self-police—meaning that if we stepped out of bounds in a basketball game—we were to call that whether others saw it or not.
Integrity was doing the right thing even when no one was watching. Golf was my Dad’s sport, and I sometimes caddied for him. I would watch as he addressed his ball during the game. He never rolled it over to get a better lie unless the rules allowed him to do so in a unique situation. If he was out of bounds, he added the requisite stroke to his score. And it did not matter whether anyone was watching or not. He did the right thing, always.
Dad and a partner founded a small boiler repair business. They competed hard for their contracts but would never bid unfairly or cut corners on the services when they won the contract. If Dad underestimated a job, he called it a lesson learned and fulfilled the contract at his loss.
Each summer, from the time I was 14-years old until I was in college, I worked with my Dad’s partner. They supervised each other’s sons when we worked. That way, the employees had less of a reason to think the “kids” bosses were favoring their children. My Dad and his partner taught me what it meant to give a good day’s work for a good day’s salary. They taught me what it meant to take care of the customer. I learned the meaning of being tough but fair when it came to managing employees.
Traction and Attraction
I saw how Dad and his partner gained traction in the market through their reputation for doing business with integrity. They won contracts that few companies their size would ever win. I saw how on more than one occasion, they would take a call from a school maintenance supervisor at midnight because they needed boiler repair so that kids could come to school the next day. Or, I watched as they had a team of people working around the clock over a weekend to remove and replace a hospital’s boiler so that operations could continue with the proper redundancy in their heating system.
I also noticed that their customer base evolved to being people who shared their work ethic and values. They attracted customers who didn’t take advantage, who supported them in providing the work (like making allowances for delays while we handled emergencies), and who would make sure that Dad’s company was made whole if the scope of the job had to change.
I have tried to carry those life lessons forward in my own business. What I have found is that my personal friends and my business network are people with whom I am happy to associate. My business comes through referrals, so people must be comfortable making a referral. I know that will not happen if they do not believe that I have their best interest at heart, not just my own.
Character matters. Values are what make character and my experience tells me that successful leaders have strong positive values. I know that successful leaders have friends and associates who also have positive values and, therefore solid characters. We are known by the company we keep.
How are you and your company doing? Do you have sustainable traction in your market? Is your brand one that reflects trustworthiness, integrity, fairness, and good sportsmanship? I hope so. We are all going to need these attributes more than ever to succeed in future market challenges. What is your legacy?