William C. Taylor is the co-founder of Fast Company Magazine and a bestselling business author. Taylor’s latest book is called Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. In it, Taylor profiles several largely unknown companies, many of them in the middle market, doing amazing things in places and in industries that many might deem “unglamorous.” For instance, an industrial supplier in Winona, Minnesota, a regional fast food chain in Tennessee, and an office furniture maker in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Far from Silicon Valley, these booming companies offer important lessons for middle market leaders.

Q: How might the many successful business models and lessons that you describe in “Simply Brilliant” apply to middle market companies in particular?

Taylor: Middle market companies are uniquely positioned to put these ideas to work. Middle market companies are really in the sweet spot -- they’re big enough to genuinely make a difference, to cast a shadow in their field, but they’re not tiny start-ups struggling to scale up. Middle Market companies are nimble and agile enough to outthink, outmaneuver, and out-innovate some of the lumbering giants in whatever industry they’re competing in.

Q: Let’s focus on one of those companies, “Pal's Sudden Service.” How has it become an award-winning, much emulated model for creating amazing customer experiences?

Taylor: Pal’s truly has a cult-like fast food brand and following in Tennessee and southwest Virginia. It aims to serve really great food so quickly and so flawlessly that they’ve gone beyond fast food to, as their name suggests, sudden service. They make promises to their customers that nobody else can: when you pull up to the window and place your order, and it’s a drive-through only experience, they’ll take your order in 18 seconds or less. You then pull around to the delivery window, and they’ll hand you your order in 12 seconds or less. This is four or five times faster than even the second fastest restaurant in that business. Pal’s gets an order wrong once every 3,600 orders, which is close to flawless.

Pal’s became the first restaurant of any kind to win the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. But Pal’s also understands that to be amazing in the marketplace, it has to be amazing in the workplace. They’ve got a high-performing workforce. They think carefully and creatively about who they’re trying to hire, and how. They also have a meticulous approach to training, retraining, and measurement. When you talk to leaders at Pal’s they say “our most important job as leaders is to be teachers.”

Q: How have the leaders at Pal’s and at Quicken Loans, which you also profile, built these employee-engaging company cultures?

Taylor: Quicken Loan’s CEO Dan Gilbert is this very opinionated, brash kind of billionaire, and he’s very different from the CEO of Pal’s, but they share several things. First, they’re great at communicating both to the outside world, customers and the market, as well as to their internal colleagues. They say clearly, “these are the ideas our organization stands for. This is what makes us distinctive, what makes us compelling in the world.”

They’re also great at explaining and teaching what it means to be a member of their organization. They constantly ask, “What are the promises and commitments we’re making to one another, how are we going to share information, solve problems, and exchange ideas?” They work harder and smarter than other leaders to create the conditions where great people get to do their best work every single day.
Q: Let’s look at two more companies you profile: one is KI in Green Bay, Wisconsin and the other is Lincoln Electric in Euclid, Ohio. How might middle market leaders incentivize their employees in ways those companies do?

Taylor: One of the clichés among businesses leaders is, “I wish more people around here acted like owners,” meaning they want workers to have a sense of personal investment. These two companies have concluded that if you want people to act like owners, how about making them actual owners? So most of KI is owned by its employees.

In the case of Lincoln Electric, they have this very elaborate and incredibly robust profit sharing system where factory employees wind up sharing in hundreds of millions of dollars of company profit. Now if you’re going to do that, then employees need the same access to information as owners have. Both these companies are open-book organizations, so every employee at every level has access to financials, performance indicators, and all kinds of numbers.

Q: The companies you profile are fueled by a sense of mission and meaning which underlies their organizational cultures. What lessons can middle market companies take from this?

Taylor: The most competitive organizations I know think of themselves as a cause – there’s a sense of commitment around the impact the company is trying to have, the difference it’s trying to make in their field, the way everybody is expected to behave. They have a human values proposition.

It doesn’t take a lot of money, it just takes a lot of attention to what makes human beings tick and how you can elevate everybody’s sense of commitment and engagement to doing really amazing work.
Q: “Simply Brilliant” says that leaders need to be engaged, curious, and humble to transmit core values to their organizations. How can middle market leaders do this?
Taylor: The only way to remain relevant and effective is to step back every once in awhile and ask yourself basic questions: Am I making sure that what I know is not limiting what I can imagine? Think about this as the paradox of expertise. The longer you’ve done something, the better at it you’ve gotten, the harder it becomes to open your eyes to radical new developments in your marketplace, to think seriously about different ways of solving familiar problems.

The greatest leaders are the most insatiable learners. The real trick is to stay interested in big new ideas, in little surprises, in the enduring mission of your enterprise and new ways to bring that mission to life. Leaders who want to have a positive impact must look in the mirror and ask, “Am I really learning as fast as the world is changing?”

Q: What else would you say about how middle market leaders can help their organizations become “simply brilliant”?

Taylor: Ordinary is not an option anymore. You can’t do big things with your company if you’re content with doing things a little bit better than everybody else or a little bit differently than before. The ultimate questions are: “What can we do that only we can do? What do we deliver that only we can deliver? What do we promise that only we can promise?” Be the only one who does what you do. That’s ultimately the only way to succeed in a world of hyper-competition and non-stop disruption.