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Reflections on Steve Jobs of Apple: What Sports Teaches Us About the Challenges of Consecutive Wins

Written by idolizethemind


Posted on December 14 2011

By: Karl Moore and Devin Bigoness


This past week, Steve Jobs passed away and we, like everyone, stand in awe of his genius and leadership. The world will greatly miss his brilliance and constant innovative spirit. But even before his passing, the billion-dollar question preoccupying analysts is whether Apple could sustain their record of excellence and their current dominant market position for much longer. As it were, this past week is also when Apple announced the new iPhone 4S to rather lukewarm reviews. Did Apple miss a beat? Is it indicative that a champion is losing its luster?


This conundrum is well known to business leaders. Ask any company CEO how difficult it is to sustain excellence over years or decades, or any leading product engineer about the challenges of consecutive successful product launches. Karl worked with the two engineers at Motorola who invented the bestselling Razor cell phone, and as we know, the company found it hard to ever hit that level of success again.  In fact, some have argued that this success slowed Motorola’s pace in introducing a follow-on winner.  Certainly this is a question to which an individual manager or executive required to sustain excellence on a quarter-by-quarter or year-to-year basis can relate.


Why is winning over and over again considerably more difficult than winning once?  To use an analogy, we can find many answers to this challenge in the sports world. Think about it. In the NBA, NFL, MLB, and other professional sports leagues, winning the end of season championship is the ultimate prize. This accomplishment, available to only one team per season, is a testament to successful teamwork and many hours of hard work. However, top athletes always affirm that winning a consecutive title is substantially more difficult the second time around. Many teams peak in winning one year, only to fall apart the next season due to both individual and team dynamics. It is an exceptional feat for a team to win back-to-back titles.


 Below are some of the “derailers” as to why teams and organizations fail to achieve sustained excellence: 


As a Winner, You Become the Main Target – This NFL season, the Green Bay Packers are the defending Super Bowl champion. You can’t doubt that their opponents will circle the day they are to play against Green Bay, pinpointing it as the key game of the season in order try and knock off last year’s champion. They will use this game as a benchmark of how good they really are. Each Sunday during the 2011 season, Green Bay will more than likely face an opponent’s best game and hardest effort in a quest to dethrone the champion.


Apple is one of the prime candidates for this potential derailer. They are not only competing with the Android and other smart phones but also against their own history. As an organization they will need to live up to the expectations they have of themselves and the market has of them based on their history. Leading technology companies like Apple face the trouble of massive imitation.  When a product is as successful as the iPhone or the iPad, there are sure to be companies copying the technology and trying to innovate off of their platform which can make sustained success more difficult for Apple.


Key Players Demand Greater Rewards – During a team’s drive to win an elusive championship, top players often make individual sacrifices in order to reach the team’s goal.  They begin playing for the greater good of the team. However, after a championship, many key individuals want to be “extra” rewarded for their efforts. This can cause disruptive divisions and rivalries on the team, or in some cases cause a player to go to a different team for more money and recognition. In the extreme case, when the thrill of the championship is over, a key player’s desire for individual recognition and compensation can even cause the team to break apart.


In business, we see this derailer come up when executives feel they should be rewarded with more money, promotions or advancement. Following a new product or a successful business campaign, executives who made personal sacrifices may demand an increase in pay or a promotion, which can lead to friction in the team if they have unrewarded employees. There may also be other executives who feel jealous of the recognition and rewards  some leaders have received and so may question the organizational structure. In the worst cases, an organization may experience key executive departures to other organizations that lure them away with offers of better compensation and titles.


Players Don’t Push as Hard to Win – In 2010 many of the Green Bay Packers’ players pushed themselves as never before in order to win the Super Bowl. Some had “career years” and gave 110 percent in practice, in the weight room and during the games. However this increased intensity can sometimes be tempered with success. The player decides not to get up at 5 a.m. for the extra morning workout as he did last year. It is the easier choice after a win to not work quite as hard and to let up on the effort.


This derailer can also present itself in business when executives start to feel overly comfortable and satisfied with their performance. They may say that we grew 20 percent last year, so why should we push ourselves too hard this year to grow 25 percent? Some may suffer either directly or indirectly from burnout after working so hard. Companies that have pushed their leaders so hard one year will need to be able to motivate their staff to excellence again this time around.



The question for you as a leader is how do you sustain a high level of excellence after a business “championship” – whether it is a record year in profits or a successful product launch? Below are some suggestions for you as a manager to sustain momentum and avoid this dip in performance:


 1.  Recognize Achievement But Then Move On – As a leader you need to take time to celebrate the successes of your team and the individual effort required to achieve them. However following a short period of celebration and relaxation, you need to regroup and focus on what comes next, knowing that the hill towards success is now going to be steeper. One championship winning college basketball coach at the first day of practice the year after his team’s championship season took a newspaper that highlighted the team’s win and ripped it up in front of the team. He did this to reinforce a visual recognition that they were starting over and it was a new year.


Similarly, your job as a leader is to keep one foot in the present and one foot in the future of the organization. In Apple’s case, for instance, Tim Cook, the new CEO will need to celebrate the organization’s achievements but quickly move on to the challenges ahead.  As a leader you need to set the tone for your team and drive them to focus on sustaining excellence. You can do this by setting even loftier targets that capitalize on this year’s success, and by building consensus within your team around what new goals they are willing to aim for in light of their recent win.


2.  Learn from the Win – Many coaches and players will tell you that it is more important to learn from a win than a loss. After all, no championship or achievement is perfect. There can always be room for improvement, even on a “career” year. Most sports coaches have in-depth sessions during the off-season after a championship run, where they break down the film of the games with the individual players to highlight areas for improvement. As a leader it is important for you to work with your team to drive process improvements, no matter if last year was a success or not. You always need to find ways to motivate your team to work on areas for improvement, especially if you have had some changes on the team since the achievement.


3.  Motivate Everyone to Raise Their Game – As the Green Bay Packers are finding out this year, the second time is tougher than the first time. Competitors come at you with increased effort trying to dethrone you. In business, following a record year, competitors become more aggressive and intent on knocking you off.


Your role as a leader is to get your team and organization to raise their game to meet the threats. You need to be innovative and focused on creating the environment to sustain excellence in your team. Senior executives need to understand the risks that are present from existing competition, but great leaders must also be able to imagine new threats not yet on the main stage.  This may mean using new metrics for success, finding new ways to motivate your team and create more energy to keep the wins coming.


It is a career defining achievement for a team to win the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup or the NBA Championship. It is an even more historic achievement for teams like the Chicago Bulls in the 1990’s or the Los Angeles Lakers of the 2000’s to win multiple consecutive championships. Similarly, in business, it is a fantastic achievement to have a record profit year after year or to introduce several market leading products. Apple became such a champion when they introduced such consecutive winning products as the iPod, iPhone and then the iPad.


However companies like Apple have to be careful not to fall victim to their own success. Great leaders and organizations must find ways to motivate their teams to sustain that level of excellence and raise their games to form a dynasty.  A few companies do it –Disney, McKinsey, Apple, IBM, Microsoft—and these are the firms that I tell my MBA students to keep an eye for the rest of their careers, the ultimate compliment for a B-School professor.


Devin is a Project Director at Duke Corporate Education in London. Devin and his family are in the process this week of relocating from London to New York. They have been in London for close to 4 years and are looking forward to their new adventures in New York with their newborn son, Cullen.



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