I'm not a huge NBA fan. I have never been able to enjoy the half-hearted effort and soccer-like diving to draw fouls that characterizes professional basketball today. However, there is one player I do enjoy watching who stands above his peers in effort and excellence, and the evidence is in the five championships that Kobe Bryant has led his team to.
Our never-ending search to find the best companies in the world that are worthy of any Fool's hard-earned capital always starts at the top of an organization. There are many CEOs and executives who are very intelligent, hard working, and talented businesspeople. However, there are only a few who are truly visionary leaders, who are able to continuously grow and change an organization to match the changing demands of the global business world.
I mentioned Bryant not because he is arguably the best basketball player in the world, but because he has sustained team greatness over the years even as his team and the league have changed around him.
Kobe gets it
In a recent interview with a popular sports columnist he said, "How to truly make players better, what that really means. It's not just passing to your guys and getting them shots. It's not getting this or that many players into double figures. ... That's not how you win championships. You've got to change the culture of your team -- that's how you truly make guys better. In a way, you have to help them to get the same DNA that you have, the same focus you have, maybe even close to the same drive. That's how you make guys better."
Bryant understands what many CEOs and executive types can't grasp. Leadership and organizational building is not just about great products or great people. It is about fostering an environment or corporate culture in which your people can thrive and want to thrive for the ultimate goal, to be the best.
The Lakers haven't always been the most talented team with Bryant, but they have had the most talented leader, who has created a culture that has been pervasive during his tenure with the team.
This is analogous to many companies that have been able to separate themselves from its competition. Do you believe the majority of employees at Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) are significantly superior to the employees at Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) , Hewlett-Packard (Nasdaq: HPQ ) , or even Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) ? Are Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) programmers smarter than those at AOL (NYSE: AOL ) ?
I don't believe this is true. However, I do believe that Apple's Steve Jobs and Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have fostered a culture at their respective companies that its competitors have been unable to match. That's not to say these corporate cultures are for everyone. In fact, Steve Jobs and Apple have been criticized by many for its culture of secrecy, but employees understand the role it plays in the company's innovation, and they continue to advance it.
Netflix gets it
Another great example of the power of organizational culture is Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) . I can't tell you why the stock seemingly goes up every day, but I will bet its performance is in part tied to CEO Reed Hastings' leadership ability. Not only does Netflix's stock seem to be on a perpetual rise, but so does the acclaim and admiration for Hastings, who was just named Fortune magazine's businessperson of the year.
Hastings runs a company that a Wedbush Securities analyst called "worthless" in 2005, and put a $3 price target on the stock. But one look at Hastings' 128-slide presentation sent to his employees about the company's culture shows that his business is anything but that. It is an innovative and revolutionary business that many people still can't understand, because they aren't privy to the culture and business innovation that goes on behind the closed doors in Netflix's Silicon Valley offices.
Hastings looks to build what he calls "talent density." He encourages employee decision makers to make offers that compensate talent well above the industry average if the potential employee is a strong fit for the culture. The company also has no vacation policy, which builds a trust factor among peers that also plays a key role in maintaining a strong culture.
Investors should get it
When looking to buy good companies for my long-term portfolio, it's essential to find business models that are not easily replicable. As the world continues to become more flat and information more easily disseminated, this is becoming increasingly more difficult. However, there are two business traits that are simply not replicable: strong leadership and a unique culture. While there are quite a few companies that feature these qualities, no two are the same.
Who would you rather have lead your team, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? I'll take the five championship rings any day, would you?