Redefining Excellence for Today's World

Thirty years ago, Tom Peters published an incredibly influential business book, In Search of Excellence .

In it, 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.

Many people questioned the methodology used to identify the companies highlighted in the book. And some of the companies were unable to sustain their excellence for very long after the book came out. Nevertheless, Peters' book created two very fundamental shifts in the business world.

One, it took management consulting out of the ivory tower and made it relevant to the real world. Two, it got us focused on the pursuit of excellence at a time when the rest of the world was beginning to pass us by. Despite the fact that overseas competitors had begun to take away market share at an alarming rate, most US companies remained complacent. Peters' book gave us the swift kick we needed to wake up and smell the coffee.

Since then, the business world has changed almost beyond recognition. Yet, the principles described in The Pursuit of Excellence remain good guides to this day. However, like the concepts of quality and customer service, Peters' eight principles of excellence are no longer enough to provide a competitive advantage. Instead, they have become part of the status quo. Customers expect them as part of your basic product or service offering. You either have these principles as an integral part of how you do business or you don't survive.

With that in mind, I believe the time has come to redefine what excellence means. In today's world, excellence is more than a set of principles. It's a mindset, a way of thinking, a matter of discipline, and a way 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 means accepting only the best, and understanding that when it is not given that you – as the leader of your organization – are at least partially responsible. 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 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 thought bubbles you bring to the table, and do you take steps to minimize their impact on your decision-making?

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

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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 scattering its resources and going off in too many different directions. It enables clear and consistent decision-making, not only in terms of what you should do as an organization, but also what you will not do.

When things change constantly and very quickly, as they do in today's chaotic markets, it can be easy to fall into a constant reactive mode. A new technology enters the market … how do we respond? A competitor introduces a new product that easily tops ours … how do we respond? An innovation from a completely different industry suddenly disrupts our business model …. how do we respond? Having a clear definition of winning serves as an unchanging north star with which to navigate these critical strategic decisions.


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 objective for your people as well.

How? By constantly communicating your company's definition of winning, in as many ways as possible. Start every meeting with a quick reminder of the goal. Post visual cues and "brain prompts" throughout the company. Show people how their individual jobs contribute to everyone winning. Publicly reward individual and team behavior that moves the company closer to winning. The more you keep people relentlessly focused on winning, the better your chances of achieving your strategic goals.


People won't buy into your vision of winning unless they feel connected to the organization. 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.

To help your people feel connected, give honest, candid feedback on a regular basis. Set clear performance expectations for each job, and hold people accountable for performing at the required level. Solicit ideas and input from people at all levels of the organization, and listen. When adversity rears its head, let people know why and how your company will still win.

Most of all, make sure your actions align with what you are saying. In an environment where employees have rightfully grown to distrust leadership, personal integrity is an essential precursor to excellence.

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

Source by Holly Green

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