By Evan Nierman, founder and CEO of the crisis management company Red Banyan, which provides crisis PR advice to clients around the world.
There is a lot of emphasis in the business world on coming first. In fact, we’ve all heard that we’re going to finish second: people don’t care about the runner-up; nobody remembers who came second; Second place is the first loser. Or as the instructor in Top Gun memorably said to Tom Cruise’s fighter pilot Maverick: “There are no points for second place.”
Telling an entrepreneur to aim for second best instead of being the best might sound a little crazy. After all, from a young age we were conditioned to celebrate being first and at the top of the rankings. This is what many people in business – and in life – are all about.
But entrepreneurs who are just getting into the game should aim for second best goal. It takes time and experience to get number one, and you have to climb a lot over a long period of time to really get number one.
You don’t want to be the smartest person in the room
Small, scratchy businesses in the early stages of development are often defined by the hectic pace and ingenuity of the founder. The courage and commitment of the founders of these companies are admirable. They are not afraid to do whatever it takes to be successful, to work long hours, and to rush into their work. At the same time, there is a significantly different mentality and way of thinking among executives in medium and large companies.
Younger, smaller startups usually have executives who pride themselves on being the smartest people in the room. They’re often the best at what they do and aren’t afraid to tell you about it. On this occasion they will give you explanations why their service or product is second to none and simply the best. These executives are the heart and soul of the company and completely irreplaceable.
What is special about the CEOs of more established and progressive companies is that they focus more on the organization as a whole and less on themselves. These CEOs don’t really want to be the smartest person in the room. In fact, if you ask them, they will be the first to admit that others have more wits or skills. Often times, they do not consider themselves exceptionally talented and do not want to be seen as the only ones who can do what they do.
Tips from the front to get second best
The learning curve from inexperienced to seasoned veteran entrepreneur can be steep. But here are some observations from working with many successful leaders and how they differ from their less experienced counterparts.
• Successful, experienced CEOs use their resources to find and hire people who are great at what they do. They focus on building their teams and then delegating tasks so their organizations can move forward successfully without the leader having to manage every step.
Young entrepreneurs often strive to lead from scratch and display qualities that are admirable and unmatched by their peers. This approach requires hands-on participation and is time-consuming.
• Seasoned CEOs enjoy the fact that with specialized skills they can hire smarter employees than themselves. With this type of top talent, they can work as a team and achieve far more than they could ever achieve on their own.
While the seasoned CEO doesn’t have to be at the forefront of every major decision, it is often young entrepreneurs who make these calls, regardless of the skills of their employees.
• The primary focus of an experienced CEO is refining processes, building structures, and determining key performance indicators, while at the same time cultivating a culture that attracts and retains the brightest employees.
Too often the focus of a young entrepreneur is on his products or services, but not on the team building that is necessary for long-term success at the highest level.
• Established company CEOs don’t drive new business ideas until they’ve hired the right people to actually run those companies. Nine times out of ten, it will be someone other than the CEO.
On the contrary, ambitious young entrepreneurs usually have plans to start several other new businesses before the first one gets up and running successfully or has achieved its goals. This can cause them to focus too much on things outside of their area of expertise and lose focus.
What are the ingredients for a successful second place bid?
It is a challenge to put together a dream team and then keep the team members motivated, committed and consistently at an optimal level. Companies that find this out can achieve amazing results, but it takes trial and error and a significant investment of time.
Size is often not the best measure of performance. Smaller companies with an unassailable positive culture that fosters stability, ingenuity, and excellence can be just as successful – or even more successful – than their larger counterparts. Reaching number one is about building a culture and a team that can push each other forward.
If you’re looking to become the next business tycoon or unicorn, then you should do it differently. Don’t try to be the best right away. Instead, enjoy your position as second best and focus heavily on creating the systems, processes and culture to attract, retain, inspire and lead the best team members. When you do, first seat is just around the corner.