Leaders love the word ‘excellence’. It’s supposed to set high standards and encourage teams to greatness.
But is it overused? (Hint: Yes!) Could it even point people in the wrong direction? When should you and your team stop pursuing it?
Consider that cricketer Steve Waugh, one of Australia’s most respected sporting leaders, with strong opinions on leadership style, has explained the problems he observed with a dogged pursuit of ‘excellence’.
“I’ve seen players try so hard to be perfect, they lost their focus,” he says.
More on Waugh’s concerns in a moment. First let’s look at how ‘excellence’ was born as a buzzword in 1982.
That’s when the book ‘In Search of Excellence’, by Tom Peters and Robert H Waterman, came out. It sold three-million copies in its first four years and was the most widely-held library book in the United States from 1989 to 2006.
The business bestseller ‘From Good to Great’, by Jim Collins, grabbed the baton in 2001. Even though it didn’t use the ‘e’ word, the idea was still that we must leap away from the known to embrace ‘greatness’.
The excellence moniker has become embedded in our business growth and leadership culture. But hang on, you may be thinking. Isn’t that what a leadership vision is about? Pushing people out of their comfort zones to greatness?
Sure. Sometimes. However… Jargon in context.
If you use a buzzword like ‘excellence’, have you considered the message that goes with it? Have you explained what you mean by it, and does everyone in your team have the same understanding?
The actual meaning of words often depends on context, and that’s particularly true of leadership buzzwords. And if ever there was a piece of jargon that attempts to say something profound, without imparting any concrete information at all, then excellence is it.
For example, when you say: “We must pursue excellence,” without a clear message associated with it, people could interpret the meaning as, “…and we don’t care how much it costs, how long it takes or how many times we fail”.
Is that the message you want them to have?
Leaders need to think clearly about their leadership mantras and the explanations that accompany them.
This is where Waugh has an interesting perspective. He and organisational leadership expert Peter Cox recently teamed up to share their insights with CEOs and managers through their Leadership Behaviours That Drive Results program.
And they believe excellence can be taken too far.
Look at Tiger Woods. This incredible golfer has spent so much time and energy improving his golf swing, he periodically loses focus. Waugh also tells a story about fellow cricketer Michael Bevan, who constantly tried to improve his batting style so he could handle any possible ball. He too ended up losing his focus. And his place in the team.
“Encouraging and managing change is a crucial skill of great leaders,” Cox says. “However, it’s possible to take change too far in the name of excellence.”
Coca-Cola provided a famous example in the 1980s when it decided to ‘improve’ its secret recipe. The Coke millions of people had loved for 100 years was replaced, and sales plummeted. The old recipe was brought back as Classic Coke.
A mantra today at internet start-up companies is: If you’re really proud of your first app, you probably aren’t getting to market quickly enough. In other words, get to market before the product is excellent.
Microsoft dominated the early computer landscape with the MS-DOS operating system by getting the software to market quickly, when it certainly wasn’t described as excellent.
Waugh says that, as a leader, you sometimes have to decide to stop trying to improve, and focus your energy on what you already do well.
Cox adds: “There are different leadership styles. However, regular one-on-one meetings with your team are crucial. Here you honestly and objectively assess whether attempting additional change will waste energy and reduce the team’s focus on what matters at the moment.”
In other words, your leadership vision must include tough decisions about whether the effort and energy to constantly improve something outweighs the benefits of sticking to the thing that works.
So when does excellence work?
The basic idea of doing things well is, of course, perfectly sound. It’s the decision of when to apply it that makes for great leadership.
Coca-Cola didn’t stop innovating after its ‘new Coke’ failure. It added strategic variations to the formula with Coke Zero, Coke Caffeine Free, etc, which have been very successful. And rough-and-ready MS-DOS was continuously improved, leading to the Microsoft Windows operating system.
Excellence as an idea that drives process improvement is wonderful, as long as the leaders involved are using common sense. Slavishly following a principle like excellence won’t help you. A good leader benefits from a commonsense leadership style to make the tough calls on what to focus on, and when.
Finding the right focus won’t always be supported by the data. Great leaders like Steve Waugh check the data, face the truth head on and then trust their own judgment.