Jul 122011

Excellence is an old topic, more honored in a book than observed in the workplace. Nonetheless, it is an important topic because of some almost unbearable forces that are shearing the workplace.

IT may be lowering barriers to entry in many industries allowing new, smaller firms to find a home, even for a short while, and threatening larger players. But despite the thousand flowers blooming, IT-intensive markets tend to get dominated by a few very large companies, with fast-growing upstarts that are getting too big for their britches getting mercilessly culled in this economic Darwinism. But things aren’t as rosy for even these large firms. Firm life expectancy is shortening over the 20th and now 21st century in a repeatable cycle of growth, maturity, decay, and death.

More important and perhaps more pressing are some of the recent labor statistics looking at job growth since the end of the great recession. A report in February from the New York-based National Law Project has some sobering statistics.1 Lower-wage industries constituted 23% of the job loss in this recent recession, but account for 49% of the job growth in the last 12 months. Midwage industries comprised 36% of the job losses, and 37% of recent growth. Finally, higher-wage industries, which constituted 40% of job losses, account for only 14% percent of recent growth. Good jobs are very hard to find. Overall, private sector jobs are still well below their prerecession levels.

I believe that this unbalanced job growth means that high-wage jobs will continue to be scarce when they do arrive but probably with a decreasing pool of candidates. As high-wage jobs take some time to grow back, the outgoing and unemployed or underemployed crop of candidates will most likely have wilted skills and prove unsuitable to fill the new roles. For hiring IT executives, this means that we can expect enough scarcity of talent to make it difficult to fill positions. The Great Recession might be more aptly called the great high-wage employee burn-off.

Instead of trying to find them where they’re not, companies might be wise to grow them where they are. They can develop existing employees further, but doing this can be a challenge. One can’t simply sprinkle some technology and leadership training on a gaggle of employees and expect improvement. One has to build a culture and a working environment where excellence is not only expected, but actively encouraged and managed by leaders. It also requires converting some less-confident, not-so-excellent workers into confident and excellent ones. To get the outside changes in employee skill we so desperately need, we will have to change their insides first.

How does one grow excellence and confidence? What is the methodology? What is the time frame? What are the ingredients?

In the world of sports, we get a glimpse into some of the dynamics. Teams with fabulous talent fizzle. Teams with less talent rise up. Some coaches seem to reliably repeat the building of great teams; some don’t. Fundamental to team performance, however, is a group of individuals, each excellent and confident in his or her own way, working collectively and with some urgency toward a common goal. While some frown on the applicability of sports metaphors to corporate dynamics, I think they have value, especially when you need to figure out ways to develop an employee’s skill. Far from offering any foolproof methodology, all I can offer are the following concepts that seem to work:

Rule 1. Expect excellence from yourself. The leader of change needs not only to say it but believe it and act it. What is excellence? It is being able to perform specific tasks better than anyone else. Excellence means demanding a much higher level of measurable quality and quantity than the average in everything you set out to do.

Rule 2. Expect excellence from all around you. While many discount the ability of others to excel, I have always been surprised by from where excellence comes. Always assume that each employee is capable of excellence. Build a new vision of that employee in your own mind. While they may not be able to do what you expect at the moment, imagine and act as if they are capable of excellent performance. By seeing them as excellent, you will nonconsciously act as if they are capable and you will accordingly make many small decisions that they will perceive as demanding excellence from them.

Rule 3. Break it down. Excellent performance is not much more than many, many simple things done flawlessly. Teams far shy of excellence often fail to do simple things each and every time. You will need a team of “teachers” or “coaches” who can break it down in every area of performance for team members. These coaches will need to keep the intensity up and the learning cycles short.

Rule 4. Allow time to learn. Learning does not occur in steady, monotonically increasing amounts. It comes in fits and spurts, often right next to big failures. Let the teams fail where it is safe to fail and let them learn, always providing feedback.

Rule 5. Think small but difficult challenges. Excellence is the accumulation of many details learned well, deeply committed to emotionally, and repeatable done in increasingly demanding environments. While you don’t want to give too much of a challenge too soon, make sure the team members perceive the task to be challenging with a reasonable chance of failure. While some people have, by nature, an inordinate amount of self-confidence, others do not. Do not worry, confidence can be taught too. When someone faces continual, incremental, and real struggles and succeeds over and over, they naturally and often unknowingly start to develop confidence. Confidence can be learned. It just requires incrementally difficult and successful iterations.

Rule 6. Persevere beyond what anyone else expects. When you combine persistence and effortful learning over a long period (years), you have the basis for excellence. Of all the factors that make for excellence, persistence is perhaps the most significant.

Rule 7. Talk a lot. Talk to those going through these “forced” development cycles to get and give feedback. Provide emotional guidance and monitor their progress. Excellence is not gained without emotional challenges. When employees face the next level of complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, a small failure can be emotionally challenging. They will feel as if they were punched in the gut. Remind them that this is part of the process and do so quickly in the middle of or on the heels of the challenge. Don’t let too much time pass. A downtrodden mind easily festers in its own gloom.

Rule 8. Be explicit and communal. Normally managers like to treat human potential and emotion as black boxes that they shouldn’t discuss, much less probe. To get excellence from teams you need to do the opposite. Be explicit about both soft and hard skills that are lacking. It is also OK to be communal with team members’ understanding of their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses. Everyone talks about it behind closed doors anyway. Get the conversation out on the table, preferably in a social setting. Perhaps at a dinner table?

Rule 9. Know when to part ways. Not everyone is up to the challenge of pursuing excellence. Some will fake their way through it. Leaders have to be smart enough to shake this out. At the right time, have the right conversations with those who lack the tenacity and find the right spot for these employees, including outside of the company.

Rule 10. Never underestimate individual effort. Once in a great while I have seen an incredibly unskilled but extremely effortful person. In nearly every case, I have seen this person improve his or her skill. While the level of skill these people attain might not be enough to warrant a seat on the bus, more often than not, it does. Most of the time I have seen great potential get lost in a tar pit of poor effort. Effort is the most important ingredient for becoming excellent. Reward the amazingly effortful. Their attitude can be infectious.

Rule 11. Let others define excellence. Excellence isn’t just in your own mind. It is defined by a community of others who are excellent. Leverage external reviewers, auditors, industry standards, certifications, and competitions as a means of testing your skill. Seek those organizations that have not just superior performance but those with insanely good, if not incomprehensible, performance. Excellence isn’t about seeking out best practices but seeking out extremely rare, outlier performance that others might dismiss as irrelevant.

Rule 12. Never give up. Suffering from attention deficit disorders of their own, the single hardest thing for companies to do is to focus on individual and team skill development long enough to make it work. Often leaders throw up their hands and reorganize, again. Or mergers and acquisitions come along and dramatically change out the individuals and teams far faster than teams can actually develop and demonstrate skill. I think this produces perpetual suboptimal team skill and firm performance. Excellence arises when leaders can either create or take advantage of conditions that keep team members learning and working together long enough to make a difference.

Excellence should always be just a bit beyond our reach. Even those I have talked to who are unarguably the best in their craft in the world are always reaching and striving for more. They are never quite satisfied. When I coach those starting this path, they often ask “When does it get easy?” My response of “Never” doesn’t quire reassure them, but I have no better answer for them. “Is this the price of excellence?” they ask. It might be, but it is far less than the price of failure. “Of the two, which price would you rather pay?” I ask back.

Once you have seen the face of excellence, it is very hard to turn away to mediocrity. Those who have touched excellence, even if only once in their life, long for it.

Life at this edge of excellence isn’t always comfortable and has continual professional, personal, and usually emotional challenges. In time, people can learn to find comfort in this discomfort. The alternative to the continual, incremental stressors of pursuing excellence is even more painful. Irrelevancy, especially in today’s global economic climate, has a horror and a price all its own.


1 “A Year of Unbalanced Growth: Industries, Wages, and the First 12 Months of Job Growth After the Great Recession” (PDF). National Employment Law Project, February 2011.


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