retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Content Guy’s Note: One of our regular pleasures each of the past couple of summers has been reading about performance strategist Art Turock’s annual foray to the University of Southern California’s fantasy camp for over-the-hill-but-still-willing football players, and learning about some of the business lessons he learned there. We’re thrilled that Art again wants to share his thoughts exclusively with the MorningNewsBeat community…

Call it the elephant in the room – a business insight that seems incredibly obvious, but nobody wants to acknowledge it.

It took me 33 years to see it, and now I find that it is relevant to 95 percent of my business clients. And yet, I might never have seen the elephant in the room had I not taken up competitive sprinting at age 56, and participated yet again in the USC Flashback Football Camp hosted by Head Coach Pete Carroll. This, my third experience at USC, contributed to a wakeup call that leaves me with a fresh perspective for viewing performance management.

I used to marvel at how businesses do a super job of getting people of diverse talents to perform competently in their roles. After initial job training, further development is done efficiently, cost-effectively and without disrupting work getting done. It seems like enough…

But then I compared performance management practices in business, where competence is acceptable, to performance in sports, where competence is not an option, especially if the objective is to achieve a lengthy career or a winning record. In my seminars, I call this distinction “The Curse of Competence,” which states: Most businesses seem to be managed brilliantly for producing competent contributors, but managed miserably for developing consummate professionals. Look around the cubicles or the store where you work. Most of your team work hard and do a reasonably good job, but you would never mistake them for being experts, thought leaders or elite performers.

By contrast, Pete Carroll’s unambiguous priority is winning football games, so anything less than elite performance is not tolerated when it comes to developing talent. Even one loss – which can result from just one blown play, or one missed block or tackle - puts USC’s goal of winning a national championship in jeopardy.

Carroll describes his leadership role as being a lighthouse beacon, highlighting players and coaches’ adherence or divergence from the relentless focus he’s working to foster. To inspire the team’s alignment, he chooses generative language like “win forever,” “always compete,” and “practice is everything” - that depict an envisioned future.

In stark contrast to performance management in business, Carroll’s fundamental philosophy is, “Do the things we do the best they’ve ever been done.” This standard applies to recruiting, counseling players, practicing, and developing coaches. As a case in point, USC coaches continuously improve their capabilities, so their worth in the open market grows so high the only way to retain them is by promotion. Furthermore, Coach Carroll’s commitment is to help his coaches earn their dream jobs. He invites his staff to articulate their professional goals - including when they must leave USC to fulfill their aspirations, perhaps as an NFL assistant or college head coach. Carroll orchestrates role-plays of job interviews, with the aspiring job applicant wearing a jacket and tie while a colleague plays the interviewer. The videotaped interview enables the job applicant to self-critique and gather colleagues’ feedback.

How many companies pay that kind of attention to the goals and dreams of their employees?

The following four contrasting descriptions illustrate the enormous difference in performance standards between USC’s “best-its-ever-been-done-culture” and acceptable business competence:

Debriefing sales calls: When an account team completes a sales call, they exchange 10 minutes of conversation about “how do you think that went?” and bolt for the airport.

If Coach Carroll benchmarked with that description, USC wouldn’t bother to review game films.

Delivering sales presentations: Account executives deliver a standardized sales presentation, containing 46 bullet-laden PowerPoint slides to cover in 60 minutes, which substantially amounts to reading an outline and hoping the retail buyer doesn’t offer unique objections.

By that standard, USC would script their entire 40+ plays of offensive game plan and execute them in sequence. The quarterback couldn’t improvise at the line of scrimmage to counter an opponent’s unanticipated response.

Meeting preparation: Most preparation for key customer meetings gets done at the 11th hour, with little dress rehearsal to refine the presentation or the team’s coordination. Winging it is the norm.

USC’s version of winging it would amount to passing out the game plan on Friday night, telling players to review it in their hotel, and walking through the plays on Saturday morning only hours before kickoff.

Employee training: Seasoned customer service people are reluctant to role-play challenging customer situations, contending, “Roles plays are unnecessary because I have real life experience.”

Imagine Coach Carroll saying, “Upperclassmen, forget about practicing the plays. You’ve already run them in games.”


I could come up with dozens more examples. What business managers consider acceptable, football coaches would find to be absurd.

Now, anyone who argues that USC has plentiful practice time while business always needs to get work done doesn’t realize NCAA rules limit weekly workouts to eight hours in the off-season, and 20 hours in season, with game day counting as three hours. Most business professionals work 50-60 hour weeks and still can’t squeeze in even one hour to practice.

To develop your own capacity to spot massive improvement opportunities, take on the generative question the USC staff repeatedly inquires into: If our team was to perform this activity the best it’s ever been done, how would our proficiency look?

While you can apply this generative question to every facet of your business, focus first on the core competencies integral to the success of your business model. One of USC’s core competencies is in staging practices. Extraordinary practices contribute to game day performances and draw blue chip players with the hunger to improve, which in turn, puts fans in the seats and elicits booster donations.

When it comes to a business’s core competencies that drive sustainable success, competence is not an option. To be the low price leader, Walmart strives to be second to none in distribution competencies, at the same time, tolerating being adept (yet, to be fair, improving) when it comes to the retail experience. To drive sales per square foot, Whole Foods must transcend competitors in store design, while its proficiency in distribution lags behind.

As an elite performance strategist, my core competence is developing a thought leader perspective relevant to my customers’ pressing issues. Exposure to seemingly irrelevant fields helps deconstruct my ingrained and unexamined industry viewpoint, and triggers my imagination to translate original insights to my customers. MNB readers, here’s my one sentence summation of this article: Be fascinated with discovering the gap between your organization’s competent performance and your imagination’s version of “the best it’s ever been done.”

Who knows what elephants you will find in your rooms?

If you would like an excerpt from Art Turock’s upcoming book featuring the section on USC entitled, “This Isn’t Intramurals?” E-mail art@turock.com or call 425-814-3038. If you’d like to talk with Art about your insights from sports or other fields and their business applications, he enthusiastically welcomes an enlightening conversation.
KC's View: