This past weekend, I read a great profile of the American slalom skier Mikaela Shiffrin. While her story and rise to become a heavy favorite for multiple medals in the upcoming Winter Olympics was amazing, one line in the story really jumped out at me. In describing her once-in-a-generation talent and what has attracted legions of fans to pull for her each race, the author, Nick Paumgarter, writes the following: “There’s something about transcendent talent that causes people to root for it, no matter their allegiances or their usual embrace of the underdog. Excellence creates its own weather.”
That last line is one I have never read before, and it’s fantastic. What Paumgarten is describing is that when someone achieves a certain level of excellence in a specific craft, he or she resets the rules of the game. Essentially, what he is saying is that excellence plays by its own rules. While he was discussing this in the framework of one individual’s achievements, this concept makes so much sense for any company – large or small – and it is something I spoke about with the GK team at this week’s meeting.
The great thing about excellence is that while it is not born overnight, it is something that is attainable. (Unfortunately, often times, individuals or managers confuse excellence with perfection – they are not the same and it is dangerous to think they are. Excellence, and maintaining excellence, is achievable, while perfection is damn-near impossible. One need not look any further than what the great John Wooden had to say about perfection to understand this).
The problem, or challenge, with being excellent is that often times, companies say they want to be excellent, but don’t understand or appreciate what it means, or what has to be done, to become excellent. The process of becoming excellent is much more important, and much more difficult, than actually being excellent. While maintaining excellence might be more stressful – and rewarding – the process of achieving excellence can be painful and often times, frustrating, leading many well-intentioned individuals or companies to drop their respective pursuits along the way, without arriving at their destination.
While excellence is defined as the quality of being outstanding or extremely good, when it comes to team success, a company is only as good as its weakest parts. To become excellent, a company must enable and encourage each employee to be excellent as well. The foundation for excellence begins with managers helping each team member see, understand and appreciate their respective roles and what impact they will have in the company’s success. Assigning – and reinforcing value – is critical, as it will not only encourage an employee to push harder, but it will give everyone a sense of accountability that a project/client/launch, etc. will not succeed without me.
The next step is to build an environment where every employee – from the most junior all the way to the top – feel that it is not only safe to take risks, but are encouraged to do so. Taking risks – whether it be pushing a different strategy, pitching a new angle or leading a meeting with a challenging client – is the best way for a team member to extend the boundaries of their presumed limitations. By pushing themselves to do something that they did not think they could do, employees will believe in themselves, will have more confidence and will continue to push the boundaries of their work – in quantity, quality and impact.
While the first two elements are conditional on the company helping ensure employees have a setting in which they can thrive, the last piece is on the individuals themselves, and it is simple: excellence is predicated on hard work. There is no substitute for hard work, and it is not possible to achieve excellence without it. The great ones make it look easy because of the time they put in perfecting their craft.
In our business, and in every business, those willing to not only go the extra mile, but to own the extra mile, are the ones who shine. In fact, the extra mile is a lonely place exactly because so few are willing to go there. Get there, make it yours and you will find excellence.