In a webinar presentation this week entitled, “Building a Go-Fast Organization” sponsored by HCI and Globoforce, I recounted a story in which former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger had asked a staff member to do a report on something. When Dr. Kissinger got the report, he sent it back to the fellow with a note asking, “Is this the best you can do?” The staff member re-worked the report and returned it to Kissinger. The same thing happened again. The guy reworked the report another time and returned it to Kissinger, who again asked if this was his best work. The fellow replied that, yes, indeed, this was his very best work, at which point Kissinger reportedly said, “Good… now I’ll read it.” The clear implication was that Dr. Kissinger felt that he was entitled to nothing less than the best effort of those on his team.
This week, Steve Jobs took a step back from his role as CEO of Apple. Not unlike Dr. Kissinger, Mr. Jobs is known for a lot of things, but accepting mediocrity is not among them. The introduction of uber-successful products like the iPod, iPhone, IPad, and Macbook Air would never have come about without Jobs’ relentless focus on producing “insanely great” gear, to use his words.
(One can only wonder how the U.S. Congress would be behaving right now if Dr. Kissinger was the Speaker of the House and Mr. Jobs the Senate Majority Leader.)
Most of us understand deep down that high standards are a necessary requirement of winning. Sure, we whine about it at times, but nobody gets up in the morning and says, “I want to go lose today. I want to go to my job, hang out with some really mediocre people, and do crummy work for a supervisor who is a self-centered weasel.” We get it that high standards and winning performance go hand in hand.
Too often, as leaders, we handicap the performance of our team by setting the bar too low, by holding ourselves and others to a standard that is less, far less than our best effort. We do so for lots of reasons… because we’re tired, or we know our team is tired, they haven’t gotten raises in a while, they haven’t been fully trained or equipped, the list goes on. And all that is probably true.
Yet, when we do that, we step onto a very slippery slope by enunciating that there is a new operative standard called, “good enough.” In so doing, we absolutely incense those who really are giving it their very best. In effect, we are telling them that their expenditure of discretionary effort is foolish. No one likes to feel foolish, to wit a decline in their effort is almost certain, and mediocrity becomes the new norm.
Very frankly, I think sometimes we’re too quick to apologize for having high standards. There’s nothing wrong with asking people to do their very best work. And when we fail to ask for or expect it (starting with ourselves), our chances of getting it are greatly diminished. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be on a team where I’m surrounded by mediocrity, or striving to do mediocre things. I’d much rather create a big smoking hole in the ground as the result of a failed effort at something fantastic.
As leaders, it is imperative for us to push through the rough patch that we find ourselves in right now. It is entirely possible to expect (and require) best effort while still being sensitive to the needs, feelings, fears, and aspirations of our teammates. Indeed, that is the only way to secure a better future for them and ourselves. Let’s get on with it.
A pathfinder in the arena of leadership and employee engagement, Bill Catlette is a seminar leader, keynote speaker, and executive coach. He helps individuals and organizations improve business outcomes by having a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He is co-author of the newly released book,Rebooting Leadership. For more information about Bill, his partner Richard Hadden, and their work, please visit theirwebsite, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ContentedCows