Striving for Excellence

By Greg Nathan posted August 13, 2020

In this, my 200th Tip, I reflect on a few turning points in my work, and three people that have had a significant impact on my thinking. I hope you enjoy it.

It was a sunny Autumn morning in 1980 when, as a 25 year-old psychology student, I had the good fortune to spend the day with a wonderful person. One of my mentors had mentioned that a special friend, a catholic nun called Sister Aurelia, needed someone to drive her to a retreat at a secluded abbey. I had time on my hands and gladly volunteered (an irony here is I am Jewish). As we drove through the country-side, and later sat under a tree at the abbey, Sister Aurelia, enquired about my life, and listened quietly to my vision of using psychology to make a real difference in the world. I can honestly say I have never since, had an experience of feeling understood so deeply and profoundly. Some people literally radiate peace, and her encouragement on that day, for me to pursue my dreams, literally changed my life.

Five years on I landed a senior leadership role with the young, fast growing Brumby’s bakery franchise network. On my first day, my boss handed me a thick white book and said, "Read this and let’s discuss it”. It was based on a research project examining the management practices of the best run companies in America. As I browsed the pages, the term MBWA kept reappearing, which I soon learned stood for ‘Management By Wandering Around’. 

One of the most widely read business books of its time

The book, In Search of Excellence, written by two McKinsey consultants, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, was fascinating, especially the MBWA philosophy, a reminder that managers need to regularly get out of the office and talk with the people at the frontline. I also loved the book’s messages of encouraging innovation and entrepreneurial action, running a lean head office team, maintaining a strong set of values, staying close to your customers, and striving for excellence in your core business. In Search of Excellence went on to become one the most widely read business books of the latter part of the twentieth century, and Tom Peters has remained an influential thought leader to this day. One of my favourite Peters' quotes is "If you're not confused, you're not paying attention".

Birth of the Franchise E-Factor

In 1989, I embarked on my own version of an In Search of Excellence project. Using my research and psychological training, I wanted to uncover the practices that drive excellence in franchise relationships, as the available information on this topic was sparse. After three years, talking with hundreds of franchisees and franchisor executives, I identified a robust trend across the franchising sector. Franchisees were starting off delighted, but soon becoming cynical and angry at the fees they were paying and the restrictions they felt their franchisors were placing on them. I also observed that, when frustrated franchisees were listened to with empathy and respect, they tended to let go of their negativity, and engage more constructively in the franchise relationship

I presented these findings in the form of a model, to a large group of franchisor executives at a 1992 breakfast meeting, and was encouraged at how it resonated with them. After some further research and refinements, The Franchise E-Factor model was born. A year later it appeared in my first book, Managing the Franchisee-Franchisor Relationship: a Guide for Franchisors. The next seven years consisted of researching the practices that drive success and satisfaction in franchise networks, and in 1999 I locked myself away for three months to synthesise everything about managing the franchise relationship I had learned so far. My goal was to write a book of evidence-based strategies that could be easily understood and applied by both franchisees and franchisors. The result was Profitable Partnerships, which has since sold more than 160,000 copies, and is today in its eight edition.

Staying energised and inspired

While Profitable Partnerships put the Franchise Relationships Institute on the global map, I was now looking for guidance on how to move FRI from a niche consulting practice, into a sustainable business. In 2001, sixteen years after reading In Search of Excellence, I was browsing through a book store and a rather expensive, orange hard cover book caught my eye. It was based on extensive research into 11 companies that had sustained outstanding performance for 15 consecutive years. I am glad I forked out the cash to buy it, because the seven guiding principles in Good to Great, written by Jim Collins, was exactly what I had been looking for, and truly energised and inspired me.

I had always wanted FRI to be a great company, and embraced the Good to Great concepts with relish, especially its major tenet, that good is the enemy of great, and that great companies strive to the best in the world at what they do. And for the past 20 years this is exactly what we have striven for.

Striving to evolve is never easy

Now to the present. Over the past month, driven by a desire to keep FRI relevant, fresh and evolving, we have been going through a major transformation, including new systems, new leadership, new products, new branding, and a new website. I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t been stressful, however an absolute high point in recent weeks was having the opportunity to see my business heroes, Tom Peters and Jim Collins, live in separate virtual presentations.

While they were chalk and cheese in their presentation styles, (Peters like a wild man - idiosyncratic and emotional; Collins the epitome of formality and discipline), their messages were absolutely aligned. Look after your people, innovate relentlessly, focus on what you love and what you do best, strive to be helpful, and never, ever give up on your search for excellence, regardless of the short-term cost. My take out of this is, despite the uncertainties we all face, and the need to make short-term adjustments, we must not lose sight of our purpose, and do what we can to focus on the things that will make us and others stronger in the long-term. It’s a refreshing message we could all do with at the moment.

Thanks for reading this, and I hope FRI will continue providing you with useful ideas and tools for many years to come. I’d like to leave you with something personal. It’s an extract from a letter I received from Sister Aurelia 40 years ago, a few days after our visit to the abbey. It’s stored in a little wooden chest of valuable possessions, and I occasionally unfold it and read it for inspiration...."It was indeed a privilege to talk with you and to hear of your beautiful and noble purpose during these precious years of your life. I pray that God may guide you to the happy fulfilment of all your plans."  Wouldn't the world be a better place if we had more personal role models and insightful business mentors like these? 

P.S. Hope you like our new branding and website. A special shoutout to Kelli Ponting and the team at The Marketing Lab for their support.

Subscribe to Greg's Tips

For the past 10 years, thousands of franchise executives around the world have enjoyed receiving a regular email tip from FRI’s Founder, Greg Nathan.

These short stories on the psychology of business and everyday life have been likened to “mind brightening pills” as they open our thinking to fresh insights for improving wellbeing, business performance and franchise relationships.

Sign up now to receive your regular free tip from one of the leading thinkers in the world of franchising.