No matter how successful a company is today, its future depends on staying a step ahead of the competition.

Perhaps the most unsettling reality facing companies today is that old business practices, even when they're best practices, may no longer be sufficient to meet the business challenges presented by the new economy. Companies need to develop a best-practices capability -- an infrastructure that enables them to meet challenges head-on and adapt to new business environments.

Companies with a best-practices capability are able to cope with the next new thing, even though they may not yet know what it is. To borrow an analogy from hockey great Wayne Gretsky, these companies skate to where the puck is heading, not where it is now. While this capability may manifest itself differently from one company to another, companies with staying power share a few distinct characteristics:

  • They develop their people. In a business environment where it's becoming harder to compete on price and service efficiency, people matter more than ever. A stable, high-quality work force is key. Quality employees are essential to success in the new economy because of the indisputable link between them and customer satisfaction and retention.

    Successful companies know that when they invest in employees' development -- whether through formal training programs, industry seminars, or opportunities to lead a project or pilot a new idea -- job performance improves. In addition, employees' job satisfaction grows, as does customer satisfaction.

    Great Plains Software of Fargo, N.D., a 1999 Arthur Andersen Global Best Practices Award recipient, operates on the principles that business change is as fundamental as breathing and that "leaders are everywhere." With these principles in mind, Great Plains offers all employees opportunities for development. As people become an increasingly critical resource, the companies that stay at the forefront will be those whose employees continually cultivate new skills and a capacity for adapting to change.

  • They have visionary leaders who embrace change. Visionary leaders have the ability to think "out of the box." Business literature abounds with examples of great leaders who had breakthrough insights that enabled them to transform their businesses. A recent article in Fortune magazine relates one such story about Gap CEO Mickey Drexler. Gap was going through a sluggish period -- sales were flat and the company had drifted away from the clothing basics it was founded on. Wall Street was saying the company's growth period was over.
    While reading a Coca-Cola annual report, however, Drexler suddenly realized that Gap could -- and should -- be like Coca-Cola: The Gap brand should be everywhere, in small and large towns across America and around the world.

    Once Drexler pinpointed a new direction for Gap, he acted quickly and decisively -- another characteristic of visionary leaders. Leaders are rarely criticized for acting too decisively. And in the new economy, the response time between thought and action is shrinking even more.

  • They exceed customer expectations. Companies with best-practices capability are able to anticipate customer needs and exceed their expectations. Becoming truly customer-centric means identifying their service priorities, projecting the evolution of their needs, and reacting to them in the most effective manner.
    Some companies may need to cannibalize existing aspects of their business that are outmoded or simply not in the customers' best interests. For instance, suppose a customer calls to place an order. Rather than taking the order immediately, someone tells the customer that a rep will return the call. This works for the company, but it's not likely to exceed customers' expectations for ease in ordering. If your company has similar practices that work for it but not for customers, perhaps it's time for a service revolution.

    Susquehanna Health System does an excellent job of identifying and responding to the service expectations of its customers (patients). In every service area, SHS identifies its principal customers. Staff members prioritize customers' expectations and map out specific behavioral responses to each. All employees receive training in these service behaviors.

    The system's service philosophy and training programs bolster its belief that "a truly great hospital is a hospital in which extremely small things are done extraordinarily well by virtually everybody almost all of the time." This ideal is applicable to any company.

    These three organizational characteristics are essential if companies are to cultivate a best-practices capability, and they are interrelated. Visionary leaders recognize the importance of developing employees and working through them to achieve business goals. Dynamic leadership and quality employees inspire customer trust and exceed expectations.

    Susan J. Leandri is the director of Global Best Practices, the Arthur Andersen business unit that captures best business practices from organizations around the world. She can be reached at 312/507-4739 or at