THERE’S COMMITMENT; THEN THERE’S COMMITMENT
You either commit to mediocrity or commit to greatness.
AIR TECHNOLOGIES IS NORTH AMERICA’S largest independent distributor and servicer of air compressors. Based in Columbus, Ohio, it is one of those highly successful mid-market companies that, unless you know the industry, you’ve likely never heard of.
Embracing the principles and practices of ruthless consistency changed the trajectory of this 57-year-old company. As its president, Kurt Lang, noted, “If we didn’t adopt ruthless consistency, we wouldn’t have achieved the great things we’ve achieved for well over 10 years.”
What Air Technologies achieved over the past 10 years was a 14 percent compound annual growth rate, customer retention that, as Lang described, “aggressively exceeded our aggressive expectations,” and a team of people who are “focused, positive, mentally tough, able to execute, and who get fulfillment from their work.”
How was Air Technologies able to accomplish all that? Developing the right focus was the foundation—a compelling Case for Change and concise strategic positioning. Lang believed that if Air Technologies committed to ruthless consistency, it could dominate every market in which it chose to compete (the gain). If it didn’t, it would be little more than another mediocre company, something he simply couldn’t allow himself to accept (the pain). Winning meant dominating every market in which the company chose to compete because of its customers’ choices. He was clear that the company had to be uncompromisingly customer-focused, and that dominance could only be validated through customer acquisition and customer retention. This was reflected in Air Technologies’ Brand Commitment to “LISTEN to what’s important to you, COMMIT to solutions that fit your goals, and DELIVER on our promises.” To fulfill all of this required a culture committed to the right behaviors, behaviors rooted in values:
Integrity—We will do what we say we will do. Our words and actions will be honest, ethical, and respectful.
Achievement—We will strive for and be judged in our work by our individual and collective accomplishments.
Investment—We believe in our future and will continuously invest in ourselves and our company.
Balance—We will enjoy life by working passionately, playing hard, and loving and appreciating family and friends.
Yet what about purpose? Is there a greater purpose underlying what Air Technologies does? It’s a topic Lang feels strongly about: “It isn’t just about work. It’s about how we’re going to provide a better life for our people. We talk about how we’re doing 250this for our team members and their families; they appreciate this and it makes a difference in their lives.”
Each fall, Lang works with his team to develop objectives, strategies (SCIs), and plans of attack (Execution Plans) in support of the company’s strategic positioning. Past strategies have focused on areas such as employee engagement, customer loyalty, market share, service metrics, pricing strategy, operational efficiency, and gross margin. Progress and accomplishments are tracked in monthly update meetings.
Lang focuses intensively on creating an environment in which everything supports the company’s strategic focus. High-level goals are cascaded down the org chart and translated into specific, individual expectations. Air Technologies invests heavily in people, not just in job-related training but in development that helps team members grow and reach their true potential. He brings in top speakers from across North America to discuss the latest concepts, methods, and practices, as well as what he calls “universal training,” such as stress management and meditation, to help people manage their lives better. “I want to grow people,” he said. “Leaders have a social responsibility to develop better human beings.”
Consistent with the Cultural Commitment of “achievement,” managers hold monthly coaching meetings with team members to maintain a focus on performance and results. With transparency being the norm, sales, service, and operational ratings for team members are regularly displayed and discussed in group forums. Achievement awards are presented in front of peers to reinforce the importance of accomplishment. As for accountability, Lang explained, “Our people need to feel valued, and if we don’t expect more from them, support them, and hold them accountable, they’re not going to feel valued.”
What if someone doesn’t fit the culture? “If a person isn’t committed to the customer, doesn’t achieve, or doesn’t act with 251integrity—then they’re not a fit for our team. And if for some reason we as leaders miss what’s happening, the team will make sure we know, and insist the person is removed from the team.”
The right focus and right environment are critical, but you still have to build the right team. How has Air Technologies done that? “When we recruit people, we place far more emphasis now on who we are, what our culture demands, and what we’re continually working to achieve. We want people who are aligned with our vision of ruthless consistency and who can prove to us that they fit.
“Because execution is so important, we ask people about the achievement they’re most proud of and what their execution plan was to accomplish it. We want spirit and ambition, but also the courage and discipline to execute and follow through. The profile of the people we’ve hired over the past 12 years has significantly changed.”
Right focus, right environment, right team, and years of success. How does Lang maintain the right commitment? What keeps him from getting complacent? “I have to be the role model,” he said. “If I get complacent, then the team gets complacent. There’s only one prescription for success and that’s consistency. If I’m not consistent—leading by example and working hard—then our people won’t be as committed.”
What about distractions? “Distractions are a part of life, but you can choose whether to be distracted or not. If I get distracted and start letting things slip, my team has the freedom to call me on it. Accountability has to go both ways.”
Given everything Air Technologies has achieved, how does Lang keep his ego in check? “It’s knowing that there’s always room for growth and improvement.” He added, “In our culture, any employee can voice their opinion if a leader is getting too full of himself. They can respectfully confront that person with252out fear of retribution.”
Finally, I asked him about the unique challenges of managing in a downturn. It’s one thing to be ruthlessly consistent in normal times, but what happens when normal no longer applies? “Without ruthless consistency,” he answered, “we would not have been profitable while avoiding layoffs through the downturn of 2008. And there’s no way we would have been well positioned to navigate through the coronavirus crisis.”
It’s easy to be inconsistent. It’s a lot harder to be ruthlessly consistent. Leadership expert Jim Collins wrote, “The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.” Yes, and the signature of excellence is ruthless consistency.
What drives all of it is the right commitment. Ask yourself this one question: “Do I have the will to win, or the will to do what it takes to win?”
• Commitment. It’s a choice.