How does the culture you work in hold excellence? Does excellence disappear due to the demand for “more”? Is it a slogan that isn’t reflected in action? Or does it produce a stimulating environment of learning?
How we hold excellence, and how it is held in our organizations and teams, is crucial for our levels of success, the value we create, our identities, and for our satisfaction and meaning in our work. It has to do with our relationships with what is possible, with how we and our work are perceived by others, and with whether it is an internal ambition or an external demand.
The first question is “what is excellence?” Who sets the standard for it? Who’s opinion about it do you accept?
Excellence is an assessment made by someone, almost always made by someone else. Our excellence is assessed by our customers or clients in our business or professional dealings. Perhaps by our parents, friends, family, or community. Or made according to the standards of our profession. In meeting the standards of others, we need to get to know what the standards are and how to meet them. This calls us to listen well, to get to know the territory of our work or actions, and to learn from the reactions to our performance and behavior.
Performance reviews in companies are an attempt to provide this necessary and useful feedback, but they often devolves into disagreement, surprises, triggering, and frustration. This is because many of us don’t know how to make useful assessments, we haven’t set and gotten agreement to standards, we haven’t set up a the context for honest conversation to feel safe, and the focus can be on failures rather than opportunities for growth and learning. In addition, this should be an ongoing conversation, not one prepared once a year. I have found that it works best when it happens weekly.
The key for making useful and helpful assessments is to get agreement on the standards up front. Not to pull them out only when there’s a performance breakdown. The successful performance conversation was set up with conversations far earlier, setting up clear standards and agreements. The conversation also has to be in the mood of authentic commitment to learning, not just hammering on the outcomes. There needs to be clear connection between outcomes, actions, and standards. And the gap between current and possible excellence needs to show up as an opportunity for growth. Most of us find our work enlivening when we are learning and given helpful feedback. We all want to win in our work.
The feedback we receive and give to others is often much less challenging than the feedback we give ourselves. We can fall into meeting some external standard without connecting it to our own personal cares and ambitions. If we hold our standards for excellence as our own ambition, they can be a source of meaning, engagement, and growth. If they are only external demands they are a burden to carry. We can drive ourselves to be a production machine, or we can focus on the value, meaning, and engagement of the work itself.
The feedback we receive and give to others is often much less challenging that the feedback we give ourselves.
The time horizon we work in is crucial. When we demand huge changes in short time periods we almost always fail. When we hold our commitment to excellence as permanent – we are always going to improve – and that it take the time that it takes, then extraordinary results can happen over longer time frames. I have been working on public speaking over more than twenty years, and only in the last few have felt I’m nearing a level of excellence that I aspire to. We tend to give up on excellence, and ourselves, when we don’t give the time it takes for fundamental growth.
Cultivation prepares the ground and environment for growth, health, and fruitful outcomes. We need to learn to cultivate our environments for ourselves and our teams. We need nutrition, positive energy, and time for integration. We need room to experiment and fail – we cannot fulfill new possibilities on a path without failures. A standard of perfection can never be met. If we seek “perfection,” or the best we can do with failures along the way, we learn and grow. If we constrain ourselves with perfection to never fail along the way then we avoid risk, contract, get exhausted, and wither without success, meaning, or celebration of our life experiences.
Perfection can also have us focus only on the scorecard of our results. We actually lose joy in the game itself. If we don’t care about the content and experience of the work itself, the drive for excellence can be a draining grind. The pitfall is to become a production machine and become a drone of doing, doing more, and doing better without our hearts in it.
The pitfall is to become a production machine and become a drone of doing, doing more, and doing better without our hearts in it.
We want to make excellence our own game, not just meeting external standards. A successful career is not just measured by external results. It is also a life lived. It is the place where we can combine producing value for others by being fully engaged with what we care about. We can have our work be where we generate energy, not just drain it, and have it be a crucial part of a vibrant life.
We want to find our Fascination with the work itself. Our fascination opens a road to extraordinary outcomes. This is where invention, innovation, and value creation come from. When we are fascinated with the “what” and “how” of our work, it becomes an enlivening and meaningful place to be in action. It becomes a flow, a place of Engagement.
When we engage, we can Experiment, we can play with the possibilities, and we can find our power of creation as well as excellence of production. It becomes our art, not just an obligation to doing. It becomes meaningful, alive, and satisfying. It also has us face more breakdowns and issues than if we just play it safe, and that too is part of the learning – how to go to the edge as an opening of possibilities, not just entering a fearful zone. We can learn, and open a path of lifetime learning.
The initial steps of cultivation are:
- Fascination – engage with what fascinates you
- Engage – with the content of what you do, not just to get it done
- Experiment – look for new possibilities and improvements
- Learn – take what you discover into new practices, actions, and outcomes.
The practice of cultivating excellence is practice. And not just any practice, but the practice that takes us to our edge, and slightly beyond. Continual tours to the possible. This is known to be the path to mastery, to continually include new possibilities beyond our current competence and integrate them into our practices and actions.
The path of cultivating excellence is practice. And not just any practice, but the practice that takes us to our edge, and slightly beyond.
We are all practicing, all the time. We can’t avoid practice – that’s what bodies do, all the time. The question is not whether we are practicing, the question is what are we practicing. We can get very good at mediocrity, for example. But practice as dull routine produces dull results and experience. Practice to take care of what we care about is where meaning and vitality arise.
But effective practice is a path of small steps, as Robert Mauer the psychologist says, “steps so small you cannot fail.” If you are going to learn to clear your permanently piled desk, can you put away one paper clip today? Then tomorrow, two? Over a lifetime, we can go to extraordinary new skills and outcomes, with ease, fascination, and perhaps even joy.
I use the term “cultivation” not only because it is a practice, but because it implies encouraging healthy growth, taking care of something alive. To cultivate our excellence is to cultivate our aliveness, to support what makes our heart, body, and spirit most healthy and alive. When we grow we become more fruitful. But with growth we also need more nutrition, more space to move, and exposure to positive possibilities. We cultivate for continuing fertility, not to over-fertilize for one crop and then exhaust the soil.
This practice of cultivating human excellence is a practice of conversation. We cultivate our garden of excellence with conversations of what we really care about in our work, with conversation of learning, with conversations of clear standards, with conversations where failures are for learning, conversations for honest sharing of assessments and perspectives, and conversations about how our work is part of a good life.
Then the journey to excellence can be one that leads to extraordinary excellence, even mastery. And it can be a journey of meaning, aliveness, and satisfaction, not just harder effort or sacrifice. We begin with our care, our fascination, our engagement, our curiosity, and practice the permanent game of the next step toward excellence.
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