You Want Excellence But Others Don’t
The pursuit of excellence offends those who like things as they are.
Excellence is an unwelcome disruption to insecure leaders, comfortable teams, and stagnant organizations. The pursuit of excellence hurts at first.
The pursuit of excellence offends:
- Leaders who hide behind hierarchy.
- Teams who enjoy “steady as she goes.”
- Colleagues who give average effort.
12 ways to pursue excellence when others don’t:
- Choose who to be, before you begin. Be kind, compassionate, and positive. Smile while you poke the box. The pursuit of excellence may begin with frustration, but it succeeds with optimism.
- Prepare for resistance. Those most invested in the present, resist the future. The longer someone has been with a stagnant organization, the more resistant to change they become.
- Focus on benefits while acknowledging challenges.
- Accept peril. Those comfortable with the status quo, hope you fail. Some may help.
- Avoid accusation. Pursue excellence without attacking those above you.
- Find a champion with authority who believes in what you’re doing. The more people your efforts impact, the higher your champion must be.
- Don’t expect others to take risks to help you succeed.
- Put your own skin in the game.
- Make life better for as many as possible. Solve painful problems. Avoid pet peeves and personal projects.
- Focus more on giving than getting.
- Mind your tone. Speak to everyone like beloved family members. People may reject your efforts because of negative tone.
- Accept any negative consequences, if you fail. Don’t complain or attack.
- The risk of stunning success is stunning failure.
- Don’t expect people to make themselves look bad.
- Don’t expect people in power to weaken their position. When Tony Hsieh eliminated job titles at Zappos, you could predict that people with titles would resist. (The article doesn’t say the majority who left were bosses. That’s my prediction.)
What is essential to the successful pursuit of excellence in organizations that resist change?
Download an MS Word version here: YOU WANT EXCELLENCE BUT OTHERS DON’T
“Average” is a terrible place to be professionally.
Thanks Mark. You could say that being average in an average organization is safe.
> What is essential to the successful pursuit of excellence in organizations that resist change? <
…being consistent ourselves!
Very good, especially “Put your own skin in the game”. Preaching excellence only has credibility when we live it.
The first part of excelling is continually seeking to find what can be improved, so necessarily means dissatisfaction with the status quo. In that respect, seeking excellence is much like seeking holiness. It means turning away from the present and doing better, seeking perfection, and relentlessly pursuing that goal with focus. (1 Corinthians 15:58 and Hebrews 12:1,2 describe continuous, relentless improvement better than I can).
A good process for seeking excellence is best done by 1) Modeling the behavior 2) Seeking others to disciple in that behavior 3) Setting stretch goals 3) Training the willing as required, and so much that they can become trainers themselves 4) Engaging fence-sitters by asking for help 5) Getting hostile, lazy, or passive-aggressive people off the team.
Mistakes made in seeking excellence 1) Preaching without practice 2) Broad and shallow training of the uncommitted many, rather than deep discipling of the committed few. 3) Timid or unspecific goals 4) Complacency after the first few improvements 4) Allowing useless resistance or unfocused behaviors to grow 5) Lack of persistence 6) Lack of consistent measurement standards
Thanks for the post, Dan.
Thanks Marc. Your focus on modeling is helpful. Sometimes the people who think they are pursuing excellence are really just wanting others to change. They come off as jerks and/or hypocrites.
Smile while you poke the box… and if you can get them to smile too, then you’ve got a chance!
Dan, I think it might be unfair to characterise those who give average effort as being “offended” by excellence. In many cases, I think it isn’t anger or offence, it’s fear. These are often people who CANNOT afford stunning failure. Therefore, the risk of going for stunning success doesn’t add up for them.
They give average effort and like steady as she goes because they have enough complexity in their lives without more being added.
I’m not sure people in this position WANT you to fail, but I’d be pretty sure that they aren’t behind you. Too often, your win isn’t THEIR win. Leaders/managers come and go, and people like them are left in place. They get to clear up the last mess and deliver the next success while remaining exactly where they are. They’ve been made to feel bad before when things have gone wrong, and seen no benefit from success. They might not be high-fliers but they aren’t stupid, they have probably been burned before and are risk averse. Having your skin in the game won’t sell it to these people. They have no wish to put any skin of theirs in, so seeing you doing so won’t bring them on board. To them success IS being steady – a steady line of income that they can take home to their family and live their lives. Giving 110% to your project, which if it fails will leave them with nothing, makes about as much sense as playing roulette.
At the end of the day you almost need to be able to sell risk as safe, and that isn’t easy to do while maintaining integrity.
According to Kouzes and Postner, a primary function of a leader is to drive out fear. This doesn’t mean ignoring the things causing fear, but acknowledging they exist, seeking out ways to quantify them and negate them, then moving forwards. Leaders who pursue excellence do it by being present during danger, “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” with the fearful one, “laying out a table” in the face of enemies. We should not ignore or exaggerate the difficulty, simply acknowledge and deal with it. When as leaders we do so, we build trust, and when we model excellence, others can trustingly work with us to succeed. It is not a “go for broke” or “let’s take the hill at all costs” approach, but one of counting the costs, espousing the mission, and succeeding. This transcends transactional work for pay, enters the field of work for mission. It tugs at the heart, as well as the mind and wallet.
At the end of the day, these are the kind of people who are not interested in the risks of your scheme. They don’t see it as a mission for them. If you’re lucky, they see it as a job and pushing excellence as a way of being secure and keeping a job. If you’re unlucky it’s a lifeline and you playing fast and loose with it (as they see it) alarms them deeply. They aren’t interested in going throught the valley of the shadow. They may have that out in the “real world” with family hearth and home, and doing more of it at work isn’t simply unappealing, it’s the last thing they want. The mission doesn’t resonate with these people. They just need the work.
You’re right that when people are overwhelmed with responsibilities and concerns outside of work, it becomes very transactional. They simply trade hours of their lives for money to fund their lives. A good steward of the organization is also a steward of his/her people, and will take an interest in helping them.
I worked for a serial entrepreneur who was known to be demanding, yet cared about those who worked for him. When one of our senior engineers had a very premature child, he offered (discreetly through me, the engineer’s immediate manager) that the company could offer his overworked and discouraged wife a free nanny to help them through the difficult year – and asked for nothing in return. Although the engineer and his wife refused the nanny and chose to have their mother-in-law help, they were very grateful. The same entrepreneur paid 3 months of leave at full salary for an employee who suffered a brain injury in a car accident – with no obligation to do so.
That organization was very demanding, as the pace was fast and relentless, yet people were treated humanely when they needed time off or special consideration. We believed in outcomes, and made things happen. Even when we went through a rough time in which people worked at 80% of their salary so that we minimized layoffs, people worked hard and well. One of the private equity managers funding the company remarked to me that we had been successful in “getting people to drink the Kool-Aid”. He was wrong in his cynicism. We simply had a mission, and pushed/pulled/persisted to succeed. There was no “scheme” or “Kool-Aid”. We had a purpose – and we lived it. That purpose was important, but not as important as the well-being of the team delivering it.
With priorities in place, work moves from transactional to mission-focused – and becomes fun and rewarding. People align their individual goals with the mission, or move on to other organizations that match better. The organization’s leaders care deeply about each person, not just because they are a means to getting the mission done, but because each person is important. The people in the organization feel valued, not because they get more money (there is only so much to go around) but because they are part of a social network, with common goals, friends, and support.
I’ve been part of the transactional “Give me enough, I’ll work for you, but I don’t trust you, because you’re not trustworthy” companies. They are horrible places to be, a sort of anarchy of egotistical people lumped together, each trying to get the most before the axe falls, with a few overwhelmed souls not trying to get ahead at work, but simply to keep their heads down and wait for another paycheck – which will be less than that of the blowhards they work with. There cannot be excellence in such an organization, no matter what the quality standards and inspection – because people don’t care.
How much better it is to be part of success, where true caring replaces “give me”, where work is a place with good friends. Excellence then becomes fun.
Marc, you’re absolutely right, but in my experience, the organisation with the serial entrepreneur is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time in organisations, no matter how it’s dressed up, the mission is “make money for the shareholders”. People see through the smoke and mirrors of “being provider of choice” or “guaranteeing 100% satisfaction” when all they ever hear about is how they are a barrier to the bottom line. A better model than a social network with common goals, friends and support is a conscript army fighting for an unpopular regime. The mission is more important than the people who deliver it.
In most organisations, the little people are faceless, anonymous and expendable.
My favorite one of a list of great suggestions: “Focus on benefits while acknowledging challenges.” In the work environment especially, benefits must be possible at the start and must be included in the regular self-assessment done. BUT not so narrowly considered that only the initially suggested benefits are included; benefits are important, THE benefits are not!!!
And, of course, if the efforts being made are to have benefits, then taking risks (challenges) will be involved. The associated failures will likely happen; that’s ok as long as learning has emerged from consideration of those failures. Challenges are going to lead to some failure – only bad if they cause automatic cessation of efforts (without assessment for learning!!!
Re your comment that most of the people who left Zappos were probably managers, my personal experience lately says otherwise. As I make some changes in my own team, the more senior people don’t care what they’re called. The people who are more in the middle want to make sure their titles show some “ownership.” This is a small-ish group, so not representative, but in this team, the people with the most experience really are more concerned with doing great work than with what they’re called.
Excellence is an outstanding concept, one that went out of favor after everyone jumped on to the Peters and Waterman framework back in the early 80s. It is a shame that we do not use that word and its related concepts much in today’s organizations, since it involves full buy-in from everyone.
Thanks for pushing this out in your clear way. Maybe we can get that wheel rolling once again.
Another gem, my friend!
This message resonates profoundly. I find #11 “Mind your tone. Speak to everyone like beloved family members. People may reject your efforts because of negative tone.”, especially important and challenging. I have made the mistake of alienating the “powers that be”, out of frustration for their seemingly self-interested entrenchment in a dysfunctional status quo. After banging my head against the same wall one too many times, it occurred to me that my approach might not be serving me well! I’m trying to slow down and maintain a curious, learners mindset- to re I’m trying to more effectively practice, what I have in the past been too quick to preach!
It means slowing down and prioritizing people and relationships before the tasks. I’m discovering its much easier to write or talk about then to model and practice!- I am humbly learning that excellence is as much a journey, as it is a destination. Have a great day! Lori
Yes, excellence may hurt, but do it anyway. A savvy leader understands that we live in an anxious world that clings to the safety and comfort of mediocrity and therefore expects its own effective leadership to be sabotaged. This is because it’s easier to undermine excellence than rise up to it. Being excellent understands human nature, it can delay gratification, endure the pain associated with maturity, and requires the courage to expect and deal with sabotage effectively. Being excellent can sometimes be a lonely place, but it doesn’t look to the approval of the world; rather, it is guided by conviction. Excellence is not a reaction to a highly reactive world. It is proactive and therefore (in a highly reactive world) distinctive. Dare not to follow the herd. Excellence has learned to live in the world but not of the world (of mediocrity.)
Dan, what a great topic! There’s always one or two peak performers in every organization—who are irrepressible spirits that break all molds and barriers irrespective of the fetters on performance imposed by stratified organizational structures. Often the credit is given to management for these high achievers. Sometimes, though, management is indicted for having hired the balance of staff members who seem mediocre as compared to them: Why isn’t everyone a peak performer?
Well, the answer is in the old Latin dictum: Primus Intra Pares…“a leader will rise among leaders.” Perhaps everyone on staff is a peak performer, and the one or two ultra-super achievers have risen among them.
What’s essential to excellence among peak performers, respectfully, is for management to stop protecting the slow runners and curbing the swift. It’s not the peak performer’s fault that embarrassing differences in individual performance emerge between staff members, or peaks and valleys in organizational productivity in various areas are exposed.
The fact is management need not empower or evoke exceptional individual effort in a peak performer. They need only give them the “right to perform,” and then get out of their way, frankly. While past management tended to protect the less ambitious, perhaps contemporary management should endeavor to free the extraordinarily proficient from the anxiety of penalty of high achievement, and reward them with the privilege to realize their fulfillment.
My favorite one….”avoid accusation”
Excellence – Perfection:
There are studies on whether perfectionism is positive, negative, or both. For leadership process Leonard and Harvey defined perfectionism as “behavior linked to the process of setting very high standards or demanding goals of achievement for oneself or for others and evaluating performance based on those standards”. But then again research has shown that perfectionists are more apt to display negative emotional states and behaviors when pursuing perfection whereas others don’t.
In my opinion the search for perfection can trail to a chronic state of self-criticism and disappointment with (our self and others) performance. It is not productive. The quest should rather be focused on a high level of excellence with the feedback driving a positive change. Or, as Kim Collins put straight: “Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection”.
Excellent topic Dan. It is hard to believe that there are so many out there that are quite content with mediocracy. In general, everyone seems to know what is wrong but no one is willing to do anything about it. However, when people do step forward, “Prepare for resistance” is an understatement Dan. Those folks almost become a target for ridicule and criticism for “trying to change the world”. It is almost sad that doing the right thing is worse than doing nothing at all.
I haven’t read all of the comments, but this is super relevant to me right now. I’m thankful for the tips; really great reminders when trying to shake things up in any situation.