Excellence Begins with the First Step – PEN May 2019

Excellence is a choice.  It’s the result of intentional, humble and visionary leadership; systematic evaluation and improvement that leads to meaningful change; and capable, motivated, and fully engaged employees.  It doesn’t happen by accident – at least not for long.  It requires data-based decisions; true organizational alignment that optimizes resources and harmonizes on mission, strategy, and customer needs.  It takes time – achieving and sustaining performance excellence is hard work, requiring patience, persistence, agility, and constancy of purpose.  But most of all, it takes people – strong relationships, trust, and true teamwork to achieve great results.

A few weeks ago, PEN hosted its annual conference, PENworks 2019: Empowering People; Achieving Excellence.  The powerful two-day event was attended by nearly 400 leaders and professionals from throughout the region, and featured over 30 local, regional and national speakers, each sharing best practices and insights to improve leadership effectiveness, workforce engagement, personal and professional happiness, and organizational and community outcomes.  The conference generated dozens of insights that could help us all improve our organizations, our communities, and ourselves.

Here are 56 of them, just from the seven keynote speakers.  I’m sure they represent only a fraction of the hundreds (thousands?) of ideas shared at the conference, but they work – they have been proven to drive results in some of the highest performing organizations in the country.

I encourage you to consider one a day – reflect on it, think about how you or your organization (or your team) compares, and explore how you might improve the underlying process that the insight addresses.  Excellence begins with small steps – start where you are, and begin improving the little things you can control.  Over time, you’ll find that you’ve made a significant and meaningful impact to your performance. 

Jenn Lim, Chief Happiness Officer at Delivering Happiness (and former Consultant at Zappos); opening keynote

  • For individuals, character is destiny; for organizations, culture is destiny.
  • Strategy is what you THINK; brand is what you SAY; culture is what you DO.
  • To promote a strong culture focused on customer experience, you need to make a personal connection with everyone you touch.
  • If you get your organization’s culture right, everything else you do comes naturally.
  • Core values are more than words – they must drive decisions and behavior.
  • When an organization’s brand and culture are aligned, its purpose and values are enhanced.
  • Happy employees lead to happy customers, which leads to sustainable businesses and improved lives.
  • To achieve and sustain real happiness, it’s important to plot and understand both your highs and lows – as an individual and as an organization.
  • The first step to being happy is to imagine it; the next step is to actually do it.
  • To be happy (and successful), control and change what you can – adapt to and embrace what we can.
  • Companies that focus on their people enjoy far better results.
  • There are three types of happiness – pleasure, passion, purpose.  The goal is to have all three aligned between an organization and its employees.
  • Six steps to achieve happiness and success: 1) commit to it; 2) build relationships; 3) be transparent, authentic; 4) build the right team; 5) focus on your purpose; 6) revisit your core values.
  • Organizational success is achieved when core values, culture, happiness and purpose are embedded in organizational systems and processes – structure, hiring, performance reviews, reward systems, communication, strategy, physical space, learning/development, everything!
  • It’s not success that leads to more happiness, but happiness that leads to more success.

Kathy Raethel, CEO, Adventist Health Castle (2018 Baldrige Award recipient, Hawaii); plenary keynote

  • The path to excellence requires commitment, persistence, patience.
  • Baldrige is not a separate initiative – it’s how we do our work. In the end, it’s not about the award – it’s about improving outcomes and getting better as an organization.
  • Our success is because we focus on our core competencies – those things we do that no other organization does better.
  • It sounds corny, but if you love your employees (and customers), they will love you back.  We have created a culture where love matters and permeates all relationships and everything we do.
  • Excellence is about execution, starting with strategic planning and better organizational alignment.
  • Excellence is all about people.

Jeff Brown, Chief Happiness “Yoda,” Experience Happiness; plenary keynote

  • Being happy is how we are all wired to be, but life (stress, failure, fear, technology) eventually causes us to lose the natural tendency.
  • Emotions beat logic every time.  Focus on WHY – focus on value.
  • Happiness can be developed over time with practice.
  • Five principles that lead to happiness: 1) be conscious, 2) honor feelings, 3) release control to be empowered, 4) co-create what works, and 5) learn life’s lessons.
  • Be crazy. Be stupid. Be sill. Be weird. Be whatever. Because life is too short to be anything but happy.
  • The more you love, the less you hate.
  • Happy employees lead to happy customers. Period.

Lindell Fields, Superintendent & CEO, Tri County Tech (2019 Baldrige Award recipient, Oklahoma); plenary keynote

  • Not only do you need the right people in the right seats on the bus, but you need to know where the bus is going!
  • An organization’s core values should be non-negotiable.
  • When you try to be everything to everybody, you can’t be anything to anybody. Focus!
  • If you’re not taking care of the customer, take care of someone who is.
  • Spend your organization’s money like it is your grandmother’s social security. Be thrifty Stay mission focused.
  • Less is more.  Stick to the core.
  • it is not what you do in a day, rather what you do daily that matters.

Rich Panico, CEO, Integrated Project Management Co. (2019 Baldrige Award recipient, Illinois)

  • The quest for excellence requires perseverance – the journey never ends.
  • Organizations today need to evolve at an increasing pace to remain relevant.
  • People are our most valuable asset.  Excellence really is about people.
  • The role of leadership is to identify and embrace core values that are uncompromising to the organization and to create an environment that facilitates and sustains excellence.
  • Organizations have an obligation to be transparent and honest with its employees – communicate, embrace and live your core values.
  • In many ways, good is better than great.  As leaders – as people – you cannot compromise your integrity.
  • Decisions should be based on data and analysis, but also emotion and instinct – especially when dealing with people.
  • Excellence requires vision and execution.
  • Leadership is about envisioning, inspiring, encouraging, rewarding, and learning.  The quest for excellence never ends.

Sue Dunn, CEO Donor Alliance (2019 Baldrige Award recipient, Colorado)

  • People find meaning in their work when what they value and what they’re doing are aligned.
  • Baldrige keeps us on focused and on task.
  • The science of our leadership system is our strategy process; the art of is in our leaders.
  • Though we’ve achieved great outcomes, we are always striving to improve.
  • Advice on the journey to excellence: keep learning; improve how you plan; link employees to the mission; engage your governance; and stay the course.

Stevie Ray, Stevie Ray Improv Company; closing keynote

  • Our brains are wired to predetermine outcomes.  So go into your tasks envisioning success.
  • Neurologically, vision always beats auditory stimulation.  So leaders: actions definitely speak louder than words.
  • Our brains are most comfortable when we recognize patterns.  The implication: leaders need to be consistent, and organizations need to be aligned.
  • Physical movement sparks brain activity.  To be more creative, effective on the job: get active – walk, move!
  • You cannot perform when you judge yourself.  Take risks; engage others.
  • You can improve your persuasion on the job by starting with small common agreements, leading to ultimate agreement and change.
  • Five steps of persuasion: 1) hook them with a story, 2) find a problem relevant to the listener, 3) offer solutions, 4) provide details (max 3), and 5) take action (specific with a deadline).

Whether you attended the PENworks 2019 conference or just read this article to this point, you now have some new ideas, new ways to improve your performance, your engagement, and your (personal and professional) happiness.  As I did at the end of the conference for those attending, I challenge you all to pick just a couple and see if you can improve your team, your organization, or yourself.

And here are a few other next steps, if you’re interested:

  • To download PENworks 2019 speaker slides, visit here.
  • To download videos of the keynotes, visit hereVideos are free for those who attended PENworks (email me for your code).  For individual videos, they are $20 for members ($40 for non-members).  Or for the bundle of all seven, they are $100 for members ($200 for non-members).  They are absolutely worth it.
  • If you want to try PEN’s new “First Step” organizational assessment, a brief 19-question free organizational assessment that was released at PENworks, click here.
  • And we’ll see you at PENworks 2020: April 23-24, 2020.  Save the dates!  Registration opens next month.

What comments do you have regarding engagement, happiness, and excellence?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Yours in Performance Excellence,

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network


Catalyst for Success Since 1987! Photo credit economictimes.com, mileswelch.com, oddizzi.com or