I recently saw an e-mail from a CEO in response to negative behavior within her organization. In her message, she called for everyone in the organization to create a culture that not only refused to tolerate such behavior but a culture in which it didn’t even exist in the first place. Her bold, visionary tone demonstrated her commitment to excellence and a refusal to accept anything less. Instead of playing down to simply stopping bad behavior, she set the bar for what could be possible.
Unfortunately, her standards aren’t the norm. Consider how many organizations strive for “good enough” by failing to uphold standards, constantly putting out fires, maintaining the status quo, defaulting to command and control, comparing themselves to and competing with rival companies, or avoiding risks. Or, just rehashing buzzwords and generic, empty vision statements.
Even worse, think of organizations that don’t strive towards anything at all and simply go through the motions.
If we aim for “good enough,” we’re likely to hit mediocrity. And, if we don’t aim for anything, we’re more or less going to fail. Therefore, our best chance for success leaves one option: striving for excellence.
The Call to Excellence
Excellence is compelling. In an environment of excellence, there is a palpable sense of energy, purpose, and inspiration. People come alive and produce amazing results.
This is different than positive thinking or living in a fantasy world. Excellence is about wanting to be the best and focusing on practical behaviors to get there. The call to excellence requires us to set standards in areas such as:
Instead of empty words on a page, these words become guidelines for creating and living up to the benchmarks that support our vision.
The Path To Excellence
Ultimately, excellence is about behaving in alignment with your desired end state in each moment. Fortunately, with commitment and persistence, the path to get there can be quite straightforward. Following is a simple process you can use, both in your organization and in your life.
- With your team, choose an area of focus in which to achieve excellence. You can use some from the list above, or any area you desire.
- For that area, create three lists. The first list captures what bad behavior would look like in that area. The second list captures what good behavior would look like. The third captures what excellent behavior would look like. For example, in the area of accountability:
– Bad behavior: not following through on commitments, blaming others for mistakes
– Good behavior: meeting deadlines, tracking action items
– Excellent behavior: providing honest performance feedback, voluntarily admitting and correcting shortcomings
- Go through each list and identify the behaviors that your team currently does. Put a checkmark next to frequent behaviors, a dash next to occasional behaviors, and a circle next to rare behaviors. Notice the trend for each of the three lists, reflect, and discuss.
- Focus on the excellent behavior list. For any item with a dash or circle, identify simple, specific, ongoing actions that the team could do regularly, if not daily. For example:
– Providing honest performance feedback: have bi-weekly performance conversations with a supervisor; acknowledge one team or individual win every day
– Voluntarily admitting and correcting shortcomings: Create action tracker and update status daily
- Vote on the top three behaviors/actions
- Follow through with actions and review weekly as a team
This process can be done in less than an hour. The key is to come away with no more than three actions. More than that will spread you thin and decrease the likelihood of success. Each month, you can choose a different area and go through this process.
When reviewing their lists, teams are often shocked at how many of their behaviors tend to fall in the “bad” or “good” categories. This provides a reality check that makes the reality hard to ignore. Although it’s important to recognize and stop these behaviors, you will gain the most leverage by putting most of your attention on practicing the excellent behaviors.
A potential trap is failing to define specific, simple actions that support excellent behavior. For example, being nice to others is vague and general. Greeting people with a smile and saying hello when you pass them in the hall is easy to understand and practice. Identify these behavior-specific actions and make them recognizable to everyone on the team. Also, it’s important to choose actions that are exciting, compelling, and raise the energy of the team. “Shoulds” and “have to’s” fall in the “bad” or “mediocre” category. “Want to’s” are signs of excellence. Lastly, listing them is one thing – doing them is another. Commit to regular practice and holding each other accountable via weekly check-ins.
You’ll know you’re on the path to excellence when people become inherently motivated. Work will feel more like play. You’ll feel a sense of anticipation and look forward to the future instead of feeling down and dreadful. Goals will feel less like chores and more like opportunities. Commitment will feel liberating instead of like an anchor. Creativity will soar, innovation the norm, and continuous improvement embedded in everyday culture. People will feel lighter, happier, inspired, and engaged. Drama, gossip, unhealthy competition, laziness, and conflict will decrease. Imagine the possibilities this kind of culture could create, and take action to make it happen.
- How would you define excellence in your organization or personal life? Consider different areas of each.
- What resistance do you experience when you consider striving for excellence?
- How would your organization be different if excellence was the norm?
- How could you engage your team to work together towards excellence?
- What is the cost of not striving for excellence?