Issues 2012: Creating a Culture of Excellence

Back in 1982, Tom Peters went In Search of Excellence and profiled 40+ companies who were examples of excellence. If we look back at that book some of the companies are gone now or are not what we would hold up as examples of excellence. That’s because excellence is not an end state. It’s an organizational state of being that’s characterized by continuous movement in pursuit of ever-higher achievement. In a culture of excellence, you are never done or…you never quite arrive.

The drive for excellence — for continually improving on even our most outstanding achievement — when paired with compelling clarity, sets the stage for achieving or even exceeding the goals defined in the strategy. The question is how do you create a culture of excellence and performance?

Excellence is about self-reflection: Without knowing who and where you are in your journey, it is difficult to continually pursue ever higher levels of personal or organizational achievement. What values are of core importance to me? How do I add value? What values are core to the organization? How do we add value for our customers? Am I clear where I am taking my organization? Am I communicating a standard of excellence?

Excellence is about continual, personal growth: Without professional growth, our performance, and that of our organization, will not be characterized by excellence. Leaders need to be a role model for their teams. They should ask “how can I use my strengths more fully to achieve the results we need to be successful?” It’s equally important to ask yourself and others, “What do I, as a leader, not know and need to learn? What skill do I need to develop and how should I apply them?”

Excellence is about setting the expectation for excellence: In environments that achieve excellence, the standard for it is communicated broadly throughout the organization. The communication isn’t just verbal. It’s communicated in goals and objectives. It’s communicated in everyday actions. It’s communicated in the quality of anything that’s produced, from emails and meeting agendas to products and services. It’s communicated in processes that focus on continual improvement.

Excellence is about creating a culture that looks at behaviors and results: Cultures that only look at results can become toxic. It can be too easy to turn a blind eye to unacceptable behavior because “hey, he/she gets results.” Leaders need to be as concerned with how people achieve results as with the results they are achieving. How do we meet our customer’s expectations, meet our business goals and behave ethically and with excellence? What behavior do we hold up as the gold standard in the pursuit of results? What behaviors are completely unacceptable?

Excellence is about tapping into each person’s drive for excellence: The neuroscience of excellence tells us that higher and higher performance comes from the need to direct our own lives, to create new things and to improve ourselves and our world. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink talks about tapping into the third drive — the drive produced from engagement in the task itself when the task allows us to experience autonomy, mastery and purpose. Too many of our organizations are using what Pink calls the second drive – the carrot and the stick – to try to create higher levels of achievement. What we know is that this only takes achievement to the level of what one needs to do to get a reward and to avoid a negative consequence. It doesn’t lead us to excellence.

Excellence is about improving those around you and managing performance: As the saying goes, the tide lifts all boats. In order to instill a culture of excellence, leaders need to manage performance and development proactively by praising excellence and having the difficult discussions that are needed to improve performance. Too often we short circuit the ability to achieve excellence because we are unable to give the difficult feedback that allows others to build their capacity to contribute. Unfortunately, many of our performance management practices also drive a trend towards mediocrity by relying too much on the carrot and stick.

As Tom Peters did almost 30 years ago, go in search of excellence in your organization. Model it, practice it, celebrate it and watch the impact on performance.

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