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Excellence

I have a thing about excellence. After many years working with many teams to launch businesses, build businesses, market businesses and sell businesses, I’ve come to realize something very important about myself that will color all future business decisions I make: I require excellence. In myself. In others. In the teams I work with.

That is not to say that I always achieve excellence. On most days, I don’t. But the pursuit of doing excellent work is always pushing me forward. I want to do incredible work with incredible people. I want that work to matter and I’m happy to work extremely hard for the privilege. What I’ve learned this past year is that I’m no longer willing to do so-so work and I’m not willing to work with teams who feel so-so is good enough.

Though I strive for the all holy “balance” that so many seek and though I know the most important things in life aren’t business, I find that again and again I’ve resisted saying this aloud because it makes me seem difficult, or exacting or worse…but I truly cannot stand to work with people who aren’t in it to do the best work they can possibly do.

Late last year, I read The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh, former GM and Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers. I was not looking for a book on management or leadership or excellence. I was hoping to get a glimpse inside a football organization I’ve loved since the very first time I attended one of their games as a little girl. Imagine, then, my surprise to find that after a few short chapters, I felt redeemed for my intense insistence on excellence. Finally, I thought. Someone gets me. I’m not crazy for wanting everyone to level up. For pushing myself so hard to deliver at the highest level I possibly can. For getting frustrated when those around me are content to deliver “just enough.” For wondering how I swiftly become the least popular person in a room when I feel we’re not playing at the level we should be.

A few key quotes demonstrate Walsh’s “Standard of Performance” and his desire to create an “Environment of Excellence”:

“I implemented what I call the Standard of Performance. It was a way of doing things, a leadership philosophy that has as much to do with core values, principles, and ideals as with blocking, tackling, and passing; more to do with the mental than the physical. While I prized preparation, planning, precision, and poise, I also knew that organizational ethics were crucial to ultimate and ongoing success.

It began with this fundamental leadership assertion: Regardless of your specific job, it is vital to our team that you do that job at the highest possible level in all its various aspects, both mental and physical (i.e., good talent with bad attitude equals bad talent.)

In a way, an organization is like an automobile assembly line; it must be first class or the cars that come off it will be second rate. The exceptional assembly line comes first, before the quality car. My Standard of Performance was establishing a better and better ‘assembly line.’

Within our organization the Standard of Performance served as a compass that pointed to true north. It embraced the individual requirements and expectations–benchmarks–required of our personnel in all areas regardless of whether things were going well or badly. That’s the toughest thing–constancy amid chaos or presumed perfection.”

I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on this topic for so long (should I really write a post about this? won’t it seem goody two-shoes? will my clients roll their eyes for the times when I clearly wasn’t excellent? will the teams know I’m talking about them?) that I had set the matter aside entirely a few months ago. Lesson learned internally. No need to share it with the world, etc. Until I read Seth Godin’s “Chance of a Lifetime” post on the very last day of 2011, which ended like this:

“You get to make a choice. You can remake that choice every day, in fact. It’s never too late to choose optimism, to choose action, to choose excellence. The best thing is that it only takes a moment — just one second — to decide.

Before you finish this paragraph, you have the power to change everything that’s to come. And you can do that by asking yourself (and your colleagues) the one question that every organization and every individual needs to ask today: Why not be great?

To which I thought: Exactly. Why the hell not?

Now. I don’t mean to conflate working hard with working smart. I’m not advocating excellence in 80 hours a week when 50 (or 40 or 30) gets it done just as well. I’m simply making a choice this year to own my need to work with clients and teams and staff who care just as much about doing great work as I do. Not in theory. Not in fancy words in a flashy Prezi that never gets implemented beyond the conference room in which it was presented. I’m talking about in practice. Every day. Trying every moment to do the best work we can possibly do. Who’s with me?

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Lee Harris Nicholson January 4, 2012, 1:19 pm

    I am so in! Thanks for sharing this and your thoughts.

  • Callie Miller January 4, 2012, 3:41 pm

    Lee – You are welcome! After writing the post, I’ve found that the past two days of work have been markedly different. Instead of bemoaning why teams aren’t excellent, I’m just trying to stay on path of doing my own excellent work and hoping that sets an example.

    It’s early days, of course, so I could be back here next week ranting again. Stay tuned. 🙂

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