Fifteen Characteristics of Effective Champions

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
originally written for Specialty Food Magazine, January/February 2006

I first met Geri Larkin in the early ’80s, not long after we opened the Deli. She was a consultant with Deloite & Touche, and has since left the world of high-powered consulting to become a Buddhist monk. Fortunately, she contributed a number of exceptional books on business and, speaking personally, left me with a few little pearl-ettes of wisdom. One of the best: “If there isn’t a champion, she wrote, “somebody who says, ‘this is my thing, this is what drives me,’ then nothing happens.

Larkin’s line about champions has been on my mind because I’ve been privileged to watch some new and successful champions emerge in our organization. These champions are not at the top of the organizational chart but rather mid-level product specialists, new assistant managers and long-term hourly staff who often have little or no formal authority. Yet they are making a difference, not in “new or particularly glamorous projects, but rather by taking over things that were just chugging along. With these new and effective champions, results have improved significantly.

Magical Turnarounds

Success as project champions is not about formal job titles. These people seem to “magically have moved a project or a cause forward that previously languished or under-performed. These “turnarounds always catch my attention because little has changed other than the champion. Usually, the cause has been around for a while; it’s one that others have worked at, espoused as their cause or at the least had responsibility for overseeing.

Yet, when these new and effective champions enter, things happen. Projects that dragged out for ages “magically start getting done. Stagnant sales “suddenly go up 10 or 20 percent. Staff who were disenchanted and quitting “suddenly seem engaged and into what they’re doing. What is the successful champion doing differently?

Everyone has probably had undertakings they’ve championed successfully. Our effectiveness as champions fluctuates as we move from one project to another. Someone who’s successfully doing it today is more likely to do it again on the next task—but there’s no guarantee. And someone who may have ineffectively championed half a dozen endeavors might be on the verge of leading the most successful work you’ve ever seen.

This list addresses the skills I need to do this work better myself and offers a concrete tool to others who are eager to make great things happen.

Effective champions:
1. Have a Vision
A vision, as we define it at Zingerman’s, is a positive picture of the future, pegged to a particular point in time and holding enough measurable matter that you know whether it has been achieved. Another name for visioning is “positive futuring or the phrase from Stephen Covey, author of the seminal The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Beginning with the end in mind.

Effective visions are:
a) Inspiring, to the leader who introduces them, and to everyone involved.

b) Strategically sound. They have a viable shot at becoming a reality. The key is to find a balance between what gets everyone pumped up and what can actually be achieved.

c) Documented. That means written down. There’s enormous power in putting the vision on paper (or at least on the computer) where others can and will read it.

d) Communicated. This is paramount to be an effective champion.

Effective champions have a vision, causing others to be inspired to contribute at greater levels than they would normally. To quote from the late writer, professor and managment consultant Peter Drucker, “The effective manager raises the eyes of his/her people from preoccupation with problems to a vision of opportunity, from concern with weakness to exploitation of strengths. Most people want to be part of something greater than themselves. An effective vision shows them what that “something is.

2. Are Passionate about the Cause
Clichéd as the term may sound, effective champions do have great passion for what they’re working on. That passion isn’t always about grandiose, life-altering, fancy-sounding big-name projects like opening a new business or world peace. A champion might be passionate about a new and more effective system of packing products into boxes, a better way to order office supplies or any of the million other little things, which, ultimately, contribute to the business.

3. Are Active Energizers
Energizing is the willingness to do what you need to do to take the passion that resides deep within you and get it out to where others can see it and feel it—then draw from it and on it. A true champion, consciously or not, exudes enthusiasm. They’re always excited to talk about their project. They’re on the move, having fun and getting those around them pumped up. Realistically, the level of energy the front-line staff has for a project will not exceed the level we put out as leaders and champions.

4. Hustle
I’ve become more conscious of the value of the intangible that the sports world has long recognized as “hustle. Effective champions do it. They are moving, on the move, getting things done, not waiting around. I’m not suggesting that they’re running recklessly, or with some manic sense of misplaced urgency. This is more an approach of moving steadily and efficiently with a purpose. They don’t waste huge amounts of energy.

5. Have Stamina and Tenacity
To take an idea from inception to effective implementation requires a lot more stamina than most people might expect. As my partner Paul Saginaw has said for years, “Professionalism is the willingness to stick with things long after the initial glamour has worn off. Generally, it wears off quickly. Effective champions barely slow down at that point—they seem to take a deep mental breath, realize that the real work is just beginning and get on with it. Soon, everyone around them is getting on with it too. They push through the time when others would give up, the way that great athletes have that third, fourth or fifth wind to call on when everyone else is dragging.

6. Talk About Their Cause; A LOT!
Effective champions talk positively and affirmatively about their work with amazing regularity. Whether the project is a product or service they sell, a business they’re building or an internal process being put in place, the champion’s active communication gets others excited and focused. Champions mention what they’re working on at every appropriate opportunity. The mentions may be subtle but they are constantly inviting others to come out and visit, to taste the new product, to send names of friends for mailing lists, etc. They take advantage of every reason to get in front of the community by speaking to non-profits, students and business groups, family, friends; basically, anyone who will listen. Within the organization, they ask to get onto meeting agendas; they make announcements about achievements related to their project and so on.

7. Use Resources

This is one of the areas in which I see the biggest gap between those who successfully champion a project and those who do not. Successful champions consistently take constructive advantage of resources that others—who often have far greater needs—seem to ignore, pooh-pooh, or put off using until later. These resources could include customers who want to help; staff interested in getting involved; or industry peers who could offer insight, experience and empathy. There are numerous learning resources like websites, classes, books, seminars, etc. And, at least around here, “new resources often include simply starting to follow systems, recipes and processes that we’d long ago agreed to use but somehow hadn’t.

8. Stay Positive
Although everybody gets down and has bad days, champions seem to just stay upbeat. They notice little things that contribute to the cause (and tell people that they’ve noticed); they appreciate the contributions of those around them, and joke in the face of adversity. Their co-workers respond to that positive energy.

9. Fight Through the “Nay Saying
Any meaningful project will have cynics and opponents. Effective champions do not let that stop them. They may steamroll through it or simply keep going. Later, the successful champion will get credit for her foresight. The champion does not give up as soon as someone says that their idea is stupid or will never work or has been tried ten times before and failed.

10. Overcome Inertia
This is about continuing at full steam when the rest of the world seems apathetic and uninspired, when it feels like the champion is the only one who cares about the project. While most people are usually willing to stand pat with the status quo, effective champions keep things moving. Instead of laying down with the masses, they use positive energy, high levels of enthusiasm, vision and good communication to help bring the group up.

11. Take Responsibility for Results
Taking responsibility for results is a prerequisite to achieving them. Successful champions take it as a given that they’re responsible for accomplishing what needs to be done. They do not do all the work themselves but they start with the mindset that it’s up to them to move things forward. They don’t say, “someone else was supposed to do it, that their boss “kept them from making progress, that their peers “weren’t supporting them, or their staff “wouldn’t get on board. They never act like victims. At the rare times when they do raise issues, it’s always in the context of asking for help to get past short-term obstacles.

12. Get Organized
Without a plan and an effective way to get the mission accomplished, not much will happen. Effective champions do not operate with the illusion that stuff is just going to happen. They either get the work effectively organized themselves, or, alternatively, they surround themselves with organized people.

13. Pay Attention to Details

You can be the most visionary, charismatic and enthusiastic leader but it’s still critical to pay attention to the little things. Effective champions totally, regularly, watch the details, which is very different from micromanaging. They see when people get things right and appreciate those successes. They notice the fine points of failure—spots on windows, less-than-enthusiastic phone service, spelling mistakes. They do not have any illusion that the details just get done. Big successes start with great visions, but they’re built on successful implementation of the little things.

In case you think this comes from some sort of military or sports mindset, remember this quote from the Dalai Lama, “Never neglect details. When everyone’s mind is dulled or distracted, the leader must be doubly vigilant.

14. Let Others Know They Noticed
Effective champions almost routinely find ways to let others know that they’ve noticed assistance or accomplishments, almost always in positive, “user-friendly ways that inspire those around them to be ever more diligent to detail.

15. Get Results

People who do the above are the ones that ultimately get the best results. That plays out the same whether their work is in community service, a for-profit business, teaching college or raising children. The glamour wears off quickly. The results separate an effective champion from a well-intended, hard-working, but less-effective, peer. The bottom line is that when successful champions take the lead, service gets better, staff morale improves, financial results brighten, and everyone wins.