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Creating a Common Language

By Scott Elkins, CEO of Zeus Fire and Security

Businesses of all sizes are constantly juggling dozens of priorities, and we need to choose where to direct our focus at any given moment. A common language can provide just that focus — just that spark of efficiency or motivation to tip the balance from mediocrity to excellence.

A Common Language Can Come From Anywhere

I have adapted much of the language I’ve used at Universal Atlantic Systems and Zeus from New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Business Week best-selling author Jim Collins. The first in the series of Collins’ books, Good to Great, has virtually been canonized into business book “must read” status, has been translated into 32 different languages and sold over 2.5 million hardcover copies.

I have been fortunate in my career to have the opportunity to hear directly from and speak with Collins on several occasions. His books have provided me and my business with this common language I have used throughout my career to communicate clearly and effectively what is most important to achieving our organizational goals. They create a shorthand for leaders communicating on opportunities or issues. This aligns the entire company on the values and strategy we have selected to guide our decision-making and ensures focus by quickly assessing and determining the best approach moving forward.

As you look at your own organization, I would encourage you to find a source that resonates with you and your team as the basis for your common language. For this article I will go through five examples of how I’ve adapted Collins’ ideas at my organization:

Are They on the Bus or off the Bus?

This is a framework to evaluate your team — if we were starting from scratch today and moving to a new office would this person be someone we bring on the bus with us? Knowing what we know now, would we hire them again? Or would we respectfully allow them to go find success in another organization?

I’m reminded that in Collins’ example, he not only talks about being “on the bus” but also being in the right seat on the bus. Sometimes there are team members we want on the bus... but we need to move them to the right seat. Sometimes we find a person we want to hire, knowing we will need to find the right seat for them later. It may be that the seat they need to be in is currently occupied, but for the good of the company, I will need to make some adjustments to the seating chart.

Problem: At Zeus, we were (and are) constantly evolving. We need to constantly evolve our team’s capabilities and make sure we’re putting the right individuals in the right roles — for our growth and their own development.

Solution: Use “on the bus” during your most difficult employee decisions to separate fact from feelings.

Why it works:

  • It gives “permission” to remove bias and nostalgia from your assessment of your team.
  • It focuses assessment on future needs and opportunities.
  • It creates a periodic reminder to take a deep look at your organization.

Find Your Hedgehog

Your hedgehog is where you focus your energy to win. It’s the thing you can do better than anyone else in your market. The famous parable of the fox versus the hedgehog has many interpretations. However, it is widely accepted that the hedgehog is decisive and focused on a single big idea, while the fox is more open to various opportunities and accepting different approaches to any given situation. The fox may flit or dance around, while the hedgehog quietly burrows in and holds his ground. The Greek poet Archilochus writes, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And it’s that principle you want to bring to your company. Know what your one big thing is and focus your time and resources on driving that thing.

Problem: At Zeus, we’re partnering with organizations that have a long history in each of their markets. We need to help our operators direct resources and attention toward what drives value and supporting them in what matters.

Solution: We use “hedgehog” to refer to the things that each partner brings to the table and to make sure we aren’t guiding them too far from their core business.

Why it works:

  • It cuts through the desire to be everything to everyone.
  • It provides clear direction when evaluating trade-offs.
  • It eliminates “good enough” as an evaluation criterion.

Fire Bullets Then Cannonballs

Cannonballs do a lot of damage, but they also cost a lot of money. Fire bullets first to test effectiveness and save the cannonballs for when you’re confident you’ll make the
biggest impact. Imagine that you have a limited amount of gunpowder, and you are facing a mighty foe. How do you approach the battle? The reality is, we all have a limited amount of gunpowder, whatever our gunpowder may be. In your business, it may be financing, it may be time, it may be people, or any other limited resource. Collins stresses that we don’t take a “Ready-fire-aim” approach and, instead, conserve your powder until you’ve proven you can hit the mark. When you’ve proven your accuracy, blast the goal or target to bits with your biggest cannonballs.

Problem: At Zeus, we have capital to deploy to improve our businesses. We are constantly trying to innovate, but we want to make sure we reserve the bulk of our investments for the highest impact cases.

Solution: When an innovation idea comes up for consideration, we’ve built a process to test and learn and allocate funding as we get results. This reserves our cannonballs for where we know we’ll hit the mark.

Why it works:

  • It encourages testing of new ideas across the organization.
  • It requires proof before we dedicate major resources.

The 20-Mile March

Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott raced to the South Pole in the early 1900s. The winner would be the first to reach the major milestone, but the path was grueling with difficult terrain and severe weather. Amundsen’s group committed to marching 20 miles a day regardless of conditions. Scott went as far as possible on the days with good weather and hunkered down when conditions were tough. Amundsen’s team became the first to reach the South Pole and safely returned home. Scott’s team made it five weeks later but perished on their return trip.

Problem: When we add a new company to our network, there is a laundry list of things to get done. If we push as hard as possible, we’ll burn ourselves and the team out. We need to pace ourselves but remain disciplined to get everything done.

Solution: We constantly remind ourselves of the 20-mile march. Success will be measured years or decades from now and that needs to be reflected in how we work.

Why it works:

  • It forces you to plan for the long haul and pace yourself.
  • It requires discipline to make consistent progress.
  • It avoids the temptation to pursue every initiative at once.

Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)

A goal so ambitious that it centers the entire organization to stretch to reach a single, measurable purpose.

The first test of a BHAG is that it must truly be audacious. It isn’t an expectation. It isn’t a stretch goal. It’s something far and away beyond your normal course of business. It’s big enough that achieving it would be life changing for your organization.

In 2011, our team at UAS dared to dream of being named as the TMA Monitoring Center of the Year. This honor typically went to established industry giants many times the size of our organization with resources far beyond what we had access to. It was an honor we had no business thinking about, let alone pursuing.

We communicated this goal to our entire organization and rallied everyone behind our monitoring center. Not only did this focus our efforts on further delivering exceptional service to our customers, but it also educated our people across departments on the importance of our monitoring center.

After seven long years and continued focused effort, we were named one of three finalists in 2018… and lost. We did not win 2019 or 2020 either.

Finally, in 2021, UAS was named the TMA Monitoring Center of the Year. We celebrated a decade of hard work across the organization and looked back on the BHAG as something that unlocked incredible value for us. Our monitoring center is far ahead of where it would have been if we had stuck to attainable goals instead of pursuing something that, at the time, was truly audacious.

Problem: As we’ve built Zeus, our network includes companies that are mature and have not been hyper-focused on growth in recent years.

Solution: Set a BHAG for growth far beyond recent performance to refocus attention on building a growth engine.

Why it works:

  • It separates the goal from a budget.
  • It creates excitement instead of fear.
  • It makes clear that we won’t achieve it without significant effort.
  • If we get 75% of the way there…it will be a game-changing win.

Big Takeaways on the Power of a Common Language

Language is powerful – it can help us move faster and drive consistency across our organizations.

Anything can be inspiration – I have used concepts from Jim Collins with success, but find something that resonates with you and your team.

Consistency is key – Especially as you get started, repeat your common language often. Make sure it is a part of your recurring meetings and new-hire onboarding.

Creating a common language is even more important to us as we continue to scale our organization.

Zeus Fire & Security is made up of the national account provider Universal Atlantic Systems based in Philadelphia, Alert Alarm Holdings based in Hawaii and SMG Security based in Chicago. We continue to add to our network, and it is critical that we are all aligned and moving in the same direction.

Look for more good things to come from us as we achieve our BHAGs by getting the right people on the bus, remembering our hedgehog strategy and testing our theories before going all in. If we do these things in a consistent and methodical 20-mile march, we can and will achieve great things.

Article written by Scott Elkins, CEO of Zeus Fire and Security. Permission given by the writer for reprint in this issue.

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of the Security Dealer Digest.

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