Several years back, I had the opportunity to read a “playbook” that was created by Lou Holtz when he was coaching the South Carolina Gamecocks. What I loved about the playbook was that it wasn’t what you might imagine as a football “play” book with X’s and O’s, and offensive or defensive plays. Rather, it was a playbook for culture. It included team values, inspirational articles, and Coach Holtz’s Fundamentals for Winning that the team members were expected to embody.   

One of the fundamentals that was highlighted was Excellence. Within that part of the playbook, the following description of excellence was shared.  

Going far beyond the call of duty,
doing more than others expect…

This is what Excellence is all about. 
And it comes from striving,
Maintaining the highest standards,
Looking after the smallest detail, 
And going the extra mile.
Excellence means doing your very best.
In everything. In every way. 
Jack Johnson – American singer and songwriter.

At the start of a new year, it is not uncommon to reflect on how we can be better or do better. This year, I found that reflection leading me back to the above “definition” of Excellence.

If we want to be better (… go beyond the call of duty, do more than others expect), what does excellence look like? 

If we want to do better (… strive,… highest standards, …smallest detail,… extra mile), what might we need to do to achieve excellence? 

If we pursue excellence (…do our very best. In everything. In every way), how do we measure our progress and success?

When it comes to our own performance and the pursuit of excellence, we can answer these questions for ourselves, and we should. However, if we, as leaders, aspire to higher organizational performance and have a targeted bar of excellence for the team, we must also answer these questions for the team. In doing so, we clarify our expectations which serve as the foundation for performance. So, to:

  • Be Better:  Paint a vivid picture of success for your team. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What are the outcomes you see? What is the experience like? Why is achieving this picture important? Why now? Really immerse them in your vision of excellence. If that vision truly represents the bar, you owe it to your team to communicate it as clearly as possible. 
  • Do Better: Develop your thoughts on the processes, behaviors, actions, skills, knowledge, experiences, and resources getting to excellence will take, but then ask your team. Get their input. Listen to what they think it will take to get to the vision. You might be surprised to learn that it is new or different resources, maybe a different approach, or perhaps it is breaking a mold. Once you set the bar, engage the team on how you get there. 
  • Pursue Excellence: Identify meaningful measures of success and the appropriate frequency of measurement to see if you are on track. How will you monitor progress along the way? What are the key milestones? What measures might be beyond numbers? Are there qualitative aspects that can be measured and how?  

It seems straightforward, and it is. To define and achieve excellence, we must do those three things. However, there is also one thing we should not do. To be better, do better, and pursue excellence, we cannot allow complacency, continuous compromise, or rationalization for not achieving excellence to take root or grow. If we do, they will erode the vision of success and unintentionally lower the bar for performance. Once that happens, the pursuit of excellence becomes the pursuit of mediocrity, and no business achieves its potential in the pursuit of mediocrity. 

As you start this new year and you reflect on excellence, consider what it means for you, and consider what it means for your team. Reflect on what it might take to reach excellence and go after it.