On Demanding More of Yourself and Others

My grandfather was a salesman for Sunbeam for years, and eventually turned a successful sales career into a successful consulting and speaking career teaching other companies about selling, sales management, sales compensation, and leadership. On a recent trip to the Cape, I asked him to spend a few hours with me reflecting upon what business lessons from his early sales experience and speaking gigs have stood the test of time.

After thinking about it for a minute, he said “people think most organizations fail because companies and managers demand too much of their people. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Humans are capable of far more than we ever think possible; most organizations just miss the mark with goals, motivation, management, and rewards.”

En route back from the Cape, I thought about all the ways in which each one of us is complicit in demanding less of ourselves and others. We make excuses: no time. too hard. not enough resources. not enough training. not enough interest. not enough demand. not enough support from this team or that team. that person dropped the ball. the deadline was too aggressive.

When people talk about the great business leaders of the world, they are often romanticized and glorified. Ditto with incredible companies — people remember the happy endings, the high returns, and the incredible products or leaders the company produced.

But history often forgets that long before the product shipped, the IPO bell rang, or the Street weighed in, there were people in a room doing something that any rational, reasonable human being would deem impossible. And whether they decided to tackle it due to remarkable leadership, compelling financial incentives, or simply because others said it couldn’t, successful companies are built and grown by people who demand more of themselves and of others every single hour of every single day.

At HubSpot, our CEO, Brian Halligan, has a saying called “patty cake,” a reference to feedback that just tells an individual what he or she wants to hear instead of what will most help that individual grow. First time managers love patty cake feedback. It makes them feel respected and liked, and makes performance reviews significantly less painful and stressful for the manager and employee alike.

But patty cake feedback is the worst thing you can do for an employee or for your organization. The only way people get better and companies rise above mediocrity is by working for and with individuals who demand more of themselves and every person they work with on a daily basis. Complacency is contagious, and the second you start allowing managers to expect average outcomes from people, you’ll start hiring average people and seeing below average returns.

So if the Olympics inspire you to do anything at all, it’s to demand more of yourself and to raise the bar for the people you work with on a daily basis. The best coaches and leaders in the world are remembered fondly because they showed people they were capable of something they never knew that had in them, not because they passed the buck on performance reviews to avoid an awkward conversation.

Business trends come and go, as do business books. But people who make a room smarter, better, faster, and more innovative just by being in the room don’t just make a meeting or team better — they raise the bar for a company, and elevate the game for their peers.

Chatting with my grandfather was a reminder that while many elements of the business world have changed, one thing has stood the test of time. When you push yourself to do more than you thought possible and ask your teammates or reports to do the same, you run the risk of a few awkward conversations and perhaps a tense meeting or two. When you don’t, you risk being average, and leaving remarkability and massive rewards (both personal and professional) on the table.

The great basketball player Julius Irving said “I demand more of myself than anyone else could ever expect.” The rest of us should follow suit.