• Dan Gilbert is the billionaire owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the founder of Quicken Loans, the largest mortgage lender in the United States.
  • About 20 years ago, he wrote the first version of the “Isms” corporate-culture guide. It is now given to every employee in his Rock Ventures family of more than 100 companies.
  • The principles emphasize independent thinking and action, moving quickly, and innovation. 

Dan Gilbert runs an empire.

He makes many of his public appearances as the billionaire owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, but he’s also the chairman and founder of Rock Ventures, his holding company for over 100 businesses, including the Cavs, the real-estate company Bedrock that’s transforming downtown Detroit, and the company that first brought him major success, the mortgage lender Quicken Loans.

About 20 years ago, Gilbert decided to write down a set of principles that would define Quicken Loans’ corporate culture, resulting in the book of “isms,” — that is, “cutesy” sayings, as Gilbert calls them, representing bigger management ideas.

“It doesn’t matter, really, what we do because that could change or additional things could be added,” Gilbert told Business Insider for an episode of our podcast “Success! How I Did It.” “But it’s who we are, which guides decision-making, your actions, your behaviors.”

Gilbert started with a few “isms” and added more as the years went by. He said they’re not unique but tap into what he considers to be universal truths about running a successful business.

“Einstein didn’t make up relativity — he discovered it,” Gilbert said. “I sort of view it the same way.”

Today, every employee of a Rock Ventures company gets a 144-page “isms” guide of 19 principles. But rather than reading like a dry business book, it’s filled with colorful images and 1950s-style cartoons. A note at the beginning says that the entire guide was written by Gilbert and that to keep it “authentic” it isn’t worried too much about proper grammar.

The principles may not have the same grammatical structure, but they’re consistent with what you’d find in a straightforward — and often quirky — email from Gilbert.

The “isms” are:

1. “Always raising our level of awareness.”

Truly listening to a client is an active, not passive, skill.

2. “The inches we need are everywhere around us.”

A company cannot be great by being exceptional in only one way — it requires outdoing the competition down to the smallest details, or what Gilbert calls the “inches.”

3. “Responding with a sense of urgency is the ante to play.”

All employees need to respond to phone calls and emails, whether from clients or colleagues, on the same day they were received.

4. “Every client. Every time. No exceptions. No excuses.”

“Clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Gilbert wrote.

5. “Obsessed with finding a better way.”

Gilbert wrote that he wanted employees to feel empowered to speak up if they think there’s a better way of doing something and management to avoid a bureaucracy that would stifle these ideas.

6. “Yes before no.”

“This does not mean that every single idea, question, suggestion or recommendation will ultimately be met with a big thumbs-up,” Gilbert wrote, but that no one should immediately shoot it down.

7. “Ignore the noise.”

With all of the influence Gilbert wields, whether it’s overseeing an NBA team or reinventing Detroit’s downtown, he can be a controversial figure. He said that if there’s a problem, he’ll fix it, but without focusing on “naysayers.” He wants his employees to do the same.

8. “It’s not about WHO is right, it’s about WHAT is right.”

“There is no place at our company for typical corporate arrogance,” Gilbert wrote.

9. “We are the ‘they.'”

Siloing of teams within a company, where colleagues become “others,” is toxic, Gilbert wrote. All team members must be aware that as part of the same company they are working toward the same goals.

10. “You have to take the roast out of the oven.”

Being a perfectionist can lead to missed opportunities and is a waste of time and energy.

11. “You’ll see it when you believe it.”

In the book, Gilbert shared a companywide email he sent in 1998 in which he declares — making liberal use of exclamation points and capital letters — that for Rock Financial (Quicken Loans’ original name) to succeed in the future, it needs to become a leader in providing mortgages online. It was this long-term vision, Gilbert argued, that led Quicken Loans to become the largest mortgage lender in the US.

12. “We’ll figure it out.”

This is a follow-up to the bit about the roast in the oven — the focus on moving forward with projects before everything is perfect should be viewed as a competitive advantage, not a source of fear.

13. “Every second counts.”

“Time, not money, is the most valuable commodity of all,” Gilbert wrote. “Time can never be replaced. Never trade significant amounts of time for small sums of money.”

14. “Numbers and money follow; they do not lead.”

Whether in approaching your career or your company’s goals, using growth as motivation rather than money will be what results in a higher paycheck and better deals.

15. “A penny saved is a penny.”

Make investments with the big picture in mind, freeing you up to make big expenses in the short term. Gilbert used an example of investing $3 million in new seats at the Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs play, to add to the overall value of the team.

16. “We eat our own dog food.”

Gilbert wants all his Rock Ventures companies to take advantage of and support one another. That means using and supporting services and products within the family of companies — and there’s even a strong suggestion to cheer on the Cavs. (The phrase was popularized by Microsoft in the ’80s, and is a goofy metaphor representing people making the products using them, and not trying to take advantage of a customer by cutting corners.)

17. “Simplicity is genius.”

Complexity does not equate to quality. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, Gilbert argued. Find the easiest, cleanest ways of getting things done.

18. “Innovation is rewarded. Execution is worshipped.”

Excellent ideas and planning are crucial to success but are only half the process. The execution of them requires just as much attention, or else nothing that came before it matters.

19. “Do the right thing.”

“The high road is not a shortcut. Stick to the highest standard of integrity, without compromise,” Gilbert wrote. “How can you go wrong doing the right thing?”


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