A Culture of Discipline

“Freedom and responsibility within a framework.”

In his book “Good to Great“, Jim Collins lists “A culture of discipline” as one of the six necessary elements that make a company great. It’s a really profound concept, but I’m going to make it actionable for you.

Nowadays, everyone talks about “culture” as if it’s a tangible thing. There are hundreds of business books on “culture”, and many companies go out of their way to focus on “culture”: they put in pool tables and free breakfast bars and have staff nights out to improve their ‘culture’. They have fun fridays on Zoom and send out party hats (guilty). But when you ask them how their culture is improving, or how it’s better, no one can define it. Does ‘good culture’ mean that everyone is happy at work all the time? Does ‘great culture’ result in better staff retention? Does it affect the clients? Does it change any of the key economic indicators of the company?

“I’ll know it when I see it”.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when asked how he defined obscenity in the media

The thing that makes Collins’ book so powerful is that he actually pinpoints the culture present in great companies:

“Freedom and responsibility within a framework.”

Here’s what that means from the CEO to the staff.

The CEO’s job is to grow the company. Their framework is defined by the company’s mission: more dividends to shareholders, more market penetration or market share; or maybe, in the public sector, to vaccinate more people or serve more hot meals. The goal of the company could be to become great: to grow by understanding their “hedgehog” — where they can be best in the world, with a steady economic engine and undying passion for their brand.

If the company’s mission is to maximize shareholder dividends, then the CEO builds the framework to maximize dividends. If the mission is to help people get fit, then the CEO builds the framework to help more people get fit. Then they must adhere to that framework: they must avoid the temptation to do other things, start other companies, play around with ‘side hustles’ or otherwise be distracted from the goal. Of course, this is a paradox: every profitable company must serve their client well, and every service-focused business must make money to endure. The key is to build a framework that allows for some flexibility (freedom), but ultimately holds the CEO accountable for results (responsibility).

The staff are responsible for following the framework to deliver a specific outcome. However, there might be some freedom within the framework as long as the intended outcome is produced.

For example, in my gym, our coaches have a class plan. They know to start the group on time; to follow a series of warmup exercises; to spend 15 minutes on the warmup and 15 teaching skills; and then to transition to the workout of the day. They know to finish the workout five minutes before class ends, and then to high-five, congratulate and thank everyone before they leave.
But within those blocks, they have freedom to tell jokes, to demonstrate exercises differently, to spend more time with one client than another…as long as the objective is met.

My manager has a sales plan. She has a series of five questions to ask every prospect that will help her produce a good workout recommendation. The last question–“are you ready to start now?”–helps her transition from teaching to selling. She has the freedom to share personal stories, tell the client a joke, banter about their kids and mutual connections…but she’s measured on her ‘close rate’ (the number of prospects who sign up.)

In my mentorship practice, mentors have frameworks for each stage of our process. Some stages allow for more freedom within the framework, but all stages have clear responsibility.

The first stage is tightly scripted: we want clients to build momentum and trust, so we give them very simple steps. “Click here, copy this and paste there, say exactly this…”. The mentor’s responsibility is to guide the client through the first phase with all steps completed, which results in the client gaining clients and making more revenue.

In the second stage, though, the mentors have a framework with more freedom. They can guide the path of each client based on the client’s goals and needs. They can select from a huge library of resources, courses and tools. They can follow up with the client on email or text or messenger. They can hold one-hour meetings or shorter sessions. They can nominate their clients for prizes and awards…but ultimately, they are responsible for a single outcome (the client must achieve their goal.)

For staff, a culture of discipline means:
Following the plan instead of chasing novelty
Holding clients to the plan instead of dreaming up new directions at every workout or mentor call;

Holding management and the CEO accountable for setting the course, and staying on it;

Using different methods to motivate clients while understanding that the client’s outcome is the ultimate goal.

My first gym nearly failed because I lacked a culture of discipline. I had great coaches and staff, but no one was following a framework: I hadn’t developed one yet. Every class was different, every situation was treated as an individual case. When I wrote a playbook and a set of policies, we had that framework and my great people flourished.

Is a culture of discipline easy to build or maintain? Not really. It requires having the disciplined people with disciplined thought processes. It also means avoiding an authoritarian culture, led by a disciplinarian who punishes people for every misstep. Here’s the key: staff must be disciplined about the framework, not disciplined to respond to the boss. Good CEOs know how to build passion for the mission, tie the mission to the framework, and keep the good people working on it.

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