By Robyn Louw

They say you can get 99 compliments but you’ll remember the one criticism. It’s funny how that works. I loved Keeneland’s Life’s Work video.

And I was puzzled and a bit put out when several people whose opinion means a lot to me, did not and used words like maudlin, old fashioned, etc.

So I challenged them on it.

Not because I believed that I was right and they were wrong, but because we viewed it differently and I was keen to understand what they saw that I didn’t and why. In this sense I mean ‘challenge’ in a positive sense, as in ‘debate’. I wasn’t trying to convince them to see things my way, but I accept that at least some of the world may function differently to me and it’s important to a) understand that, b) acknowledge that and c) figure out how to both work along with that as well as seeing if I can figure out a way to make that work for me (for example, if someone on the playground doesn’t like Blue Smarties, but you do, you don’t try and convince them that Blue Smarties are the bomb, you simply trade them for the liquorice allsorts that you don’t like and everyone’s a winner).

The great thing about debate is that it’s not about finding a bland, middle-ground compromise (like the old joke about a married couple fighting over how to squeeze their toothpaste. He preferred to squeeze it from the bottom, she preferred to squeeze it from the top, so they compromised and squeezed it from the middle and were both unhappy). The joy of debate (if you’re doing it properly) is an opportunity to see something from someone else’s perspective and perhaps adjust your mind set a little. If you’re really lucky, the discussion that the differing sets of ideas will generate, might just spark off new, entirely left field ideas – and then you’re really making progress, because you are moving on to something new. That’s fun. And it’s productive, because the simple process of expending time and effort and energy thinking about something, generally sparks off thoughts and ideas on lots of other things at the same time.

There are billions of people in the world. And given all the various cultures, histories, languages, locations and probably about a million other details, each and every single one of those is shaped uniquely in terms of their thinking and their life experience. That means it is impossible for one single human being to understand, never mind cater to all of them. And as we are always trying to figure out ways to reach new demographics, it’s a no-brainer that this is exactly what we should be doing. All the time. So if all you have around you are people who think like you and tell you that your ideas are super fantastic, well, where and how do you expect to expand your thinking? And reach people (who aren’t already in the room?) If the folks around you are NOT challenging you – at least on some things – chances are they’re not doing their jobs.

So, I was having a discussion with a friend over marketing, good and bad marketing, and his ideas on what could work for racing and why. He has a fascinating brain, not to mention a rather storied career in marketing and advertising. I appreciate him sharing some of that with me (even if I’m not very quick off the mark and don’t always follow all the finer points), because it is interesting listening to someone who knows their subject so well and is so passionate about it and it’s fun to see things through a different set of lenses.

This conversation came about because he’d had a good night out with other, similarly creative, energetic and passionate people and he’d come away feeling good and energised and creative. Not because they all nodded in the same places and laughed at the same jokes, but because the company of smart, intelligent people is interesting and an exchange of ideas is invigorating.

So then we got to talking about what made this a good evening – was it a racing vs non racing thing? Or something else? And the answer (we think) is that it’s a people thing. And people are important. The right people are even more important. Because people LIKE spending time with other people. They particularly like spending time with other people who are fun and exciting and energetic to be around because the people you spend time with inform your thinking. In this particular case, the magic happened by offering a platform that allowed them to be themselves. Which in turn, helped them help one another, for all the reasons I’ve just discussed. But if you ran around trying to figure out what each individual in that group liked most and then forced them all to endure some kind of middle ground option, well, it just wouldn’t have been fun, would it? And everything would have felt forced and a bit bland with everyone compromising for everyone else and no-one really loving anything. And without that spark of love, there’s no magic.

At the moment, racing seems to go around like a Johnny No-mates, desperately trying to work out what the other kids like and then doing that to try and fit in. Which is a) very hard to do well and b) unlikely to work anyway. For example, I will not settle for a mass produced, mediocre burger once I know there is a good one just a little further up the road. And I would far rather travel a little further, wait a little longer and pay a little more for something that I really want, than settle for something that I don’t want and know won’t be nearly as satisfying, because I know that compromising is a waste of money. It doesn’t make sense.

People are however, interested in good things. Quality, well-made things. And passion and energy and creativity and people who are fun to be around.

Do you know who that sounds like? Well, to me it sounds a lot like racing folk (on our good days, granted, but it’s still true). Which brings me back to Life’s Work. While that may not be our purpose, it certainly encompasses everything we think and feel and love and do on a daily basis. And when we are doing those things is when we are our best selves. Our most passionate and energetic and creative (see where I’m going with this?).

My friends’ criticism of Keeneland’s Life’s Work video is that it misses the point because one’s life’s work is not about what we do here and now, it’s about laying foundations and building towards the future. And that is true. So perhaps the video does miss the point in terms of formally stating its credentials and its intended purpose (which was to pay homage to its community), but I think the intention was good, and from that perspective I still do love it.

But I acknowledge that our marketers have a tough decision. Should they try for some bland middle road (like the toothpaste) which satisfies some of the criteria, but which no-one is really all that crazy about, or, how about turning the whole thing on its head and instead of running about trying to sell contrived, unconvincing versions of ourselves to random strangers, we focus on the things that may not make us generic (who wants that anyway?), but the stuff that makes us special. The stuff that we believe in. The stuff we’re good at. And passionate about. If we can collect it, condense it, focus it and sell THAT, it may still not please EVERYONE, but it will create a critical mass and our own centre of gravity and that will pull people to us.

And then that will spark and expand and grow and help one another. And that will attract other people (you know, those ‘outside’ demographics we’re always chasing so hard) and they will want to hang around and invite their friends because we’re just so damn fabulous.

This is why it is SO important to employ good people and then to hang onto them for grim death. Because good people understand that being good actually means working hard at BEING GOOD. Not faking it till you (probably don’t) make it. Because good people attract other good people. And they are not afraid of them, because they know that good people, who are good at what they do, are there to work together and build something bigger and better and newer than a single individual could do on their own. Because they know life is constantly evolving and therefore they must too. Mediocre people attract other mediocre people – or worse yet, even more mediocre people. And they remain stuck in a loop, patting one another on the back and going no-where, while the rest of the world sprints off ahead, leaving them in the dust, wondering why they’re suddenly left talking to themselves.

Don’t believe me? Perhaps you might like this little story from David Halberstam’s ‘The Breaks of the Game.’

In 1974, Lynn Swann was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Swann was selected seventh, but his agent, Howard Slusher, managed to negotiate the second-highest starting salary among rookies that year. (In short, Slusher got Swann No. 2 money even though he was the seventh pick, a fairly rare feat that was great for Swann and great for Slusher’s image as a capable negotiator who could deliver for his clients.)

At the press conference to announce the signing, Slusher was pulled aside by Art Rooney, then the owner of the Steelers.

“You think you screwed us, don’t you?” Rooney asked Slusher.

Slusher took the politic route and didn’t respond. In fact, he did think he had gotten the best of the Steelers.

“You’re wrong,” Rooney said. “We got you. My son says he’s not a good football player, he’s a great football player. Probably the best draft pick we’ve ever had. Maybe better than Terry Bradshaw or Joe Greene.” (As it turned out, Rooney was right; Swann went on to have a Hall of Fame career.)

Slusher could tell Rooney was trying to make a point, so he remained silent.

“Let me teach you a lesson, young man,” Rooney said. “You can never overpay a good player. You can only overpay a bad one. I don’t mind paying a good player $200,000. What I mind is paying a $20,000 player $22,000.”

Great employees are worth a lot more – to your teams, to your customers, and to your bottom line – than average employees. Remarkable employees are worth dramatically more.

So forget scales and benchmarks. Pay them not just as if you want to keep them but as if you desperately need to keep them.

Because you do.