Leadership’s Pursuit of Excellence

“Leaders are never too busy to strive for excellence,” said BG Porter, president of Studer Group at last week’s Quest for Excellence conference in Washington DC. I attend this conference most every year, and I always pick up best practices on what drives organizational performance excellence. This year (since I’m now Tweeting: @LassiterBrian – see my article last month on social media!), I was listening to the remarkable line up of speakers, searching for the 140-character insights. Like this one from Nancy Schlicting, CEO of Henry Ford Health System: “The most important word that creates an entrepreneurial and innovative environment: ‘yes.’” In other words, empower your people and good things will happen.

So this month’s column will be a series of brief quotes (Tweets?!), from leaders about leadership, except for the last one, which is a slightly longer commentary on the one key ingredient common in all successful leaders – the “secret sauce” that drives leadership effectiveness. If you read nothing else in this column, please jump to the end and read that quote…

But let’s start with another quote from the Quest for Excellence Conference: “Excellence can only be achieved when the CEO commits to it,” Gary Meyer, CEO of Schneck Medical Center in Indiana (and 2011 Baldrige recipient). Isn’t it true? – excellence begins at the top of any organization (and so, too, does mediocrity or inferiority). Indeed, culture and performance expectations are set, communicated, and reinforced from the top of the org chart.

Or this quote that came from a change management workshop the Council hosted two weeks ago: “Most organizational problems are in the ‘white space’ in the org chart,” Gary Floss, director of quality and continual improvement at Marvin Windows and Doors. Gary’s comment here is insightful: since most organizations are structured in functional units (and sometimes in isolated dysfunctional silos), many of the challenges organizations face are in the process connections between those silos. In other words, in the handoffs between processes.

Here’s another one from Floss: “The Five Why’s do not include a “Who.’” Quality professionals reading this will instantly recognize The Five Why’s as the basis of root cause analysis, which is a problem solving technique to get to the bottom of process failures. The fact that there is no “who” in this line of questioning simply implies that problems are almost always rooted in process, not people (Deming claimed that 94% of process failures were inherent in the process design itself, not the people that run them, and therefore, process issues are almost always the responsibility of management). And speaking of Deming (and of process failures)…

“I don’t think you can have an innovative culture when people are afraid to make mistakes,” Roger Wood, President and CEO, Dana Holding Company. This one was probably said best by W. Edwards Deming himself in one of his 14 points: Drive out Fear. Nothing stifles innovation and risk-taking more than fear of failure (or, more accurately, fear of punishment for making mistakes).

Or how about another one on innovation: “The biggest obstacle for innovation is the fact that organizations need to deal with the here and now – that is their task – and they will see innovation as a threat,” Ben Verwaayen, CEO, Alcatel Lucent. I believe Ben is talking about the constant tension between the short- and long-term – about focusing on what’s immediate and right in front of you as managers (today’s operational issues, this month’s or quarter’s numbers, and so forth) versus investing in the things that create future value for the enterprise and its stakeholders. Certainly, leaders need to focus on today, but also need to focus on the future.

Earlier this month, we co-sponsored an event hosted by ASQ – a roundtable discussion as part of their annual Summit. The day-long roundtable focused on many emerging factors facing organizations, and one speaker, now retired Minnesota State Demographer Tom Gillaspy, had this to offer: “…to increase productivity, we must make things better (quality) and make better things (innovation).” Poignant, accurate, and really the center of the Council’s mission.

Here’s another quote about what will drive performance in the future, by Vineet Nayar, Vice Chair and CEO, HCL Technologies Ltd: “To a certain extent, human capital is the most competitive differentiator. Once you work [on it] as a differentiator, people start to view it as importantly as supply chain or other differentiators. CEOs should connect the dots between human capital and business results.” People are most organization’s greatest asset; period.

“A moving target is hard for everyone,” says Peter Grauer, Chairman of Bloomberg LP. “People just want to know the rules of the game.” I think this speaks to the importance of effective communication and the critical role leaders play in establishing a “constancy of purpose” (another Deming phrase) – promoting stability and creating a predictable path forward that drives towards a unifying vision.

Which leads to the longest quote in this article – one offered in Forbes last December by Mike Myatt. Since this column was a compilation of quotes by leaders on effective leadership, I thought it fitting to end with perhaps the most powerful one:

One of the most often overlooked aspects of leadership is the need for pursuit. Great leaders are never satisfied with traditional practice, static thinking, conventional wisdom, or common performance. In fact, the best leaders are simply uncomfortable with anything that embraces the status quo. Leadership is pursuit – pursuit of excellence, of elegance, of truth, of what’s next, of what if, of change, of value, of results, of relationships, of service, of knowledge, and of something bigger than themselves. In the text that follows I’ll examine the value of being a pursuer…

Here’s the thing – pursuit leads to attainment. What you pursue will determine the paths you travel, the people you associate with, the character you develop, and ultimately, what you do or don’t achieve. Having a mindset focused on pursuit is so critical to leadership that lacking this one quality can sentence you to mediocrity or even obsolescence. The manner, method, and motivation behind any pursuit is what sets truly great leaders apart from the masses. If you want to become a great leader, become a great pursuer.

A failure to embrace pursuit is to cede opportunity to others. A leader’s failure to pursue clarity leaves them amidst the fog. Their failure to pursue creativity relegates them to the routine and mundane. Their failure to pursue talent sentences them to a world of isolation. Their failure to pursue change approves apathy. Their failure to pursue wisdom and discernment subjects them to distraction and folly. Their failure to pursue character leaves a question mark on their integrity. Let me put this as simply as I can – you cannot attain what you do not pursue.
“Move up Move down”

Smart leaders understand it’s not just enough to pursue, but pursuit must be intentional, focused, consistent, aggressive, and unyielding. You must pursue the right things, for the right reasons, and at the right times. Perhaps most of all, the best forms of pursuit enlist others in the chase. Pursuit in its purest form is highly collaborative, very inclusive and easily transferable. Pursuit operates at greatest strength when it leverages velocity and scale.

“I also want to caution you against trivial pursuits – don’t confuse pursuit with simple goal setting. Outcomes are clearly important, but as a leader, it’s what happens after the outcome that you need to be in pursuit of. Pursue discovery, seek dissenting opinions, develop your ability unlearn by embracing how much you don’t know, and find the kind of vision that truly does see around corners. Don’t use your pursuits to shift paradigms, pursue breaking them. Knowing what not to pursue is just as important as knowing what to pursue.

“It’s important to keep in mind that nothing tells the world more about a leader than what or who they pursue – that which you pursue is that which you value. If you message to your organization you value talent, but don’t treat people well and don’t spend time developing the talent around you, then I would suggest you value rhetoric more than talent. Put simply, you can wax eloquent all you like, but your actions will ultimately reveal what you truly value.

“Lastly, the best leaders pursue being better leaders. They know to fail in this pursuit is nothing short of a guarantee they’ll be replaced by those who don’t. All leaders would be well served to go back to school on what I refer to as the art and science of pursuitology.”
People often ask me what I think is the most important factor in determining if an organization is just good versus one can be truly great. My answer is almost always: effective leadership. But let me take that one step further and say this: organizations that achieve and sustain excellence are ALWAYS led by visionary leaders who embrace change; who encourage innovation and risk taking; who create a shared vision and then are unrelenting in their constancy of purpose toward that vision; who value talent and focus on their workforce’s and their own continued development; who use data to make decisions and who consider their customers/stakeholders in every important decision to be made; who are defined by character, integrity, and ethics; who create an environment that fosters collaboration, involvement, and empowerment, but who can make the tough decision when circumstances dictate; and who – as Myatt states – are never satisfied with traditional practice, static thinking, conventional wisdom, or common performance. In short, performance excellence requires leaders who are simply uncomfortable with the status quo.

I hope you consider attending our (25th) annual best practice conference and celebration June 4-5 in St. Paul, which will feature leaders from 20 high performing organizations, each sharing their processes and methods of improving performance (see article 2 below). It’s our biggest, highest energy, most valuable event of the year. And if you found any wisdom in any of the leadership quotes in this article, come prepared to hear hundreds of them during this extraordinary learning event.

Yours in Improvement,

Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)