What is excellence in business?

Excellence postI was invited to an executive finance meeting in London recently, hosted by one of the UK’s top business schools, I was discussing many key topics around business today when we moved to the subject of excellence.

Last week’s blog talked around the Changing World, I was discussing are we having to redefine excellence for today’s world, what is the definition of excellence today and how is excellence measured in the eyes of others?

Over the centuries, great thinkers have described just what excellence is. Excellence is not perfectionism. Rather, excellence is a journey through an ever-changing landscape of new possibilities and methods. It is the best result that can be produced at a particular moment in time.

Therefore, excellence is something that can be achieved. But it can also be quickly lost as well. “Today’s Excellence, Tomorrow’s Mediocrity.” According to Aristotle, “Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

More recently, John Gardner observed that “Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” While Thomas Peters really nailed it when he observed that “Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence – only in constant improvement and constant change.”

Thirty years ago, Tom Peters published an incredibly influential business book, In Search of Excellence. In this book, he defined eight characteristics of excellent companies:

  • a bias for action,
  • staying close to the customer,
  • autonomy and entrepreneurship,
  • productivity through people,
  • clear and compelling organizational values,
  • focusing on what you do best,
  • operating with a lean staff, and
  • finding a balance between having enough structure without getting stuck in it.

These principles stay good guides to this day. However, the business world has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 30 years, and the time has come to redefine what excellence means. In today’s world, excellence is more than a set of principles. It’s a set of beliefs, ways of thinking, a matter of discipline, and ways of focusing.

Excellence starts with getting very clear on the end state you wish to achieve (winning) and relentlessly driving towards it every day. Excellence requires knowing when to push on (even when you don’t have all the information or the perfect solution), but doing it well and constantly refining as you forge ahead. Excellence means accepting only the best, and understanding that when it is not given that you, as the leader, are at least partly responsible.

Excellence reveals itself in the language you use, the questions you ask, the people you surround yourself with, and how you interact with others. For example, do you show up on time for meetings? Are you present in the moment? Do you listen actively to employees and direct reports? Are you aware of the biases and creative thoughts you bring to the table? Do you take steps to minimise their impact on your decision-making, or at least explore others as well?

In today’s hyper-fast world, excellence requires building flexible, lean organisations that can quickly adapt to rapidly changing markets without losing sight of their vision of winning. Creating this type of organisation starts with three critical elements.

Clarity

First and foremost, you have to know where you’re going and why. When faced with adversity (or opportunity), having a crystal-clear definition of winning keeps the company from going off in too many directions. It enables clear and consistent decision-making, not only in terms of what you will do as an organisation, but also what you will not do.

Focus

Getting clear on winning represents the starting point for excellence. Keeping your people focused on winning is the engine that will get you there. As the leader, you live and breathe the vision, mission, and strategy every day (or at least you should!). But for the people in the trenches, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the big picture. Excellence requires making winning a daily goal for your people as well.

Connection

People won’t buy into your vision of winning unless they feel connected to the organisation. Connection starts with having a powerful vision people can believe in and feel good about. Keeping it going requires a variety of leadership behaviors that often get overlooked in the rush to get the product out the door.

Clarity, focus, and connection are the status of corporate excellence in the 21st century. What will you do today to create them in your organisation?​

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