We have a tendency to lack clarity with some of the words we choose. Semantically, some of the words we use don’t make sense or don’t accurately convey what we want to communicate. Excellence can be one of those words that require additional definition. What do you think of when I say “Excellence?” And what does excellence look like in leadership?
What Does Excellence Look Like
I love my truck. It’s a 1990 Chevy K1500. The pickup has always been a work truck. I bought it around 2004, so I’ve had it for 15 years now, and I never thought of it as anything but a work truck. Not a show truck, not a classy truck, no leather seats or the feel of your favorite recliner when you sit in it, just an extended cab work truck. I’m not in love with the color (red) outside or inside (red again which makes absolutely NO sense to me). But it has always run well even though it leaks a lot of oil now.
And if you look at the bed of the pickup, it’s gnarly. Nothing pretty about it. And because of that, I was never afraid to haul stuff in it. Any stuff. Rocks, wood chips, lumber, dirt, trash, furniture, appliances, motorcycles, bicycles, and snakes (but that’s a story for another episode), etc. I wasn’t afraid of scratching it or hurting it – it’s a work truck. It was nice, but not perfect when I bought it, so I have never been afraid to use it as a work truck.
So, I even lent it to people. What could they do to it that I hadn’t already done? Scratch it? And it has been a godsend. Useful is an understatement. It’s four-wheel drive and ate the snow for breakfast. I can’t think of a situation where I wasn’t confident that the truck would perform as needed.
The only thing I did beside typical mechanical maintenance was bought some bigger rims and tires, but that’s it. No lift kit. No paint job. I didn’t even replace the radio and cassette tape player. Just a work truck. So was that truck excellent? It’s a great question, isn’t it?
My initial response is “Yes, of course, it is. The pickup met my needs and demonstrated significant utility.” If I think about the function, the performance of the task, I’m left to wonder if it really was excellent. Did it do the task better than any other truck could?
And here’s the thing: we can get all cross-wise if we aren’t clear about how we are defining excellence with regard to a particular object in a particular circumstance.
There were a few times that I pulled trailers with my truck. If you have listened to this podcast for a while, then you know that we moved to Phoenix last year. On two different occassions, I pulled U-haul’s 6’x10′ double-axled trailer. With the trailer and truck both loaded, it was a lot for the 350ci V8 to manage – especially on the mountain hills between Salt Lake City and Phoenix. Again, it was functional, but if I’m honest, I have to say it was less than excellent.
What Is Most Important
Did it hurt me when I could only manage to go 50mph in a 75mph zone? No. Did it matter that the 10+ hour trip took longer because I couldn’t always go the speed limit? Nah. How about the safety risk? Going 25mph to 30mph slower then the rest of the cars on the road is dangerous even if you are in the right lane. Or what about on the two-lane road behind an underpowered RV? Could I hop out in the passing lane and blow past them? Not very well even without a trailer!
There are circumstances where one particular factor is more important than another. Does failing to excel in a single area mean that overall, excellence is lost? I think it requires stepping back and looking at a bigger picture.
Remember this bigger picture because I feel like there is a significant risk with excellence. You might already recognize it. It’s the ‘P’ word. That’s right, perfection. The danger is that it can lead you to a place where you can never be excellent at anything because you fail to do anything. Therefore you get caught in a vicious cycle of constantly reiterating, revising, and adjusting the product.
Excellence Causes You To Stand Out
Failing to excel in any area is a problem because it likely indicates a lack of distinction in what you offer. This doesn’t mean that what you offer isn’t valuable or helpful. It does mean that you aren’t separating yourself from the competition. There are LOTS of trucks that could do the job that I described above. To clarify, excellence should cause you to stand out.
But is excellence subjective? I don’t think so – at least not entirely. There are some clear expectations that are met in the presence of excellence. I know there’s no way in a short post to comprehensively define what excellence looks like in leadership. So let’s start with the definition:
Excellence is a fact or state of excelling, superiority, or eminence. This, my friend, is the best of the best. And I love what John Maxwell said.
Consistency is the prerequisite to excellence.John Maxwell
He also said that consistency builds your reputation. We both know that it doesn’t take long to ruin a reputation, but building one is quite another matter.
It takes more than a single moment. But excellence isn’t momentary – like when you are voted the #1 something. You can be the number one saleswoman and not practice excellence. You can outperform your competition and still not be excellent.
A Commitment To A Way Of Living
Excellence is a lifestyle. Subsequently, it’s a commitment to a way of living that says each day that yesterday wasn’t good enough. Today, I have to be better. You live it and you breathe it. This is you competing against you! You are never really satisfied – there’s a dogged determination to learn and improve.
I recognize that it takes more than a few minutes of sharing some cool story or great quote to leave us with something meaningful. So I’ll end today with an example that Ann Miura-Ko gave in an interview with Tim Ferris on his podcast that I believe demonstrates the type of excellence we are talking about.
If you don’t know who she is, maybe you’ve heard of the VC firm, Floodgate that she started with Mike Maples, Jr. You’ve heard of Lyft, right? Well, Ann was one of the first investors before they became Lyft. Ann is super sharp. She has a Bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Yale, her PhD in math modeling of cybersecurity from Stanford where she also teaches on entrepreneurship. Her dad was born and raised in Tokyo, so obviously a very traditional Japanese family.
He came to the U.S. speaking very little English and got a PhD in mechanical engineering. Literally, he’s a rocket scientist who worked for NASA. As Ann tells it, from the time she was very young, even just five years old, he was asking “Hey, is this world-class?” and “Is this really the best that a five-year-old could ever do?”
A Great Example
When she got to Yale, she had an opportunity to work in the office for the Dean of Engineering. At that time, it was Allan Bromley. Her dad told her to “Make sure you do a world-class job.”
…and I said to my dad, “I’m photocopying and filing. There’s no such thing as world-class there.” And he said, “Well, I’d still think about it.” … I remember standing in front of this photocopy machine with a stack of papers thinking to myself, “What is world-class in this situation?” I decided it was really crisp copies where you couldn’t tell that it was a photocopy. And so, I remember really trying to make the color match and everything was straight and I spent a lot of time on the details.
And when I was filing things, I didn’t just hand write it. I got a label writer and made sure it was printed out on labels. And I really tried to do everything as well as I possibly could. And I remember I was getting doughnuts and I would make sure I got the fresh donuts instead of the ones that had been standing out in the basket for a while. So, every step of the way, it was, “What can I do to make this experience for the Dean or for his executive assistant a delight moment?”
So, I’m a junior at the time…and I’ve been working in his office for, I think, two years. But, he barely knew my name…one day he pokes his head out of the office and the executive assistant was out. And he said, “Who are you?” And I said, “I’m Ann Miura. I’m your student assistant in this office.” And he said, “Oh, I’ve heard of you. I need you to go and give this friend of mine a tour of the engineering facilities.” And he’s like, “I know you’ll do a good job. Sarah has told me you’re great.”Ann Miura-Ko
And to make a long story shorter, unbeknownst to her, she gives a tour to none other than the CEO of Hewlett-Packard at that time, Lou Platt. Because she is so impressive to Mr. Platt, he invites her to shadow him for two weeks during spring break, which she smartly accepted!
Excellence Opens Doors
He drove himself around in a Ford Focus. I remember this. We would go to different meetings and he took me around. And one of the days actually, Bill Gates came to make an announcement about .net with Hewlett-Packard. And so, it was an incredible event that happened. I got to sit backstage and see everything that was happening.
And Lou Platt invited the photographer to come in and actually take a picture of me talking to Lou, and I didn’t really think about it. But after the fact, I get back to my dorm and Lou Platt has sent me a thank you letter saying, “Thanks for coming to visit. I thought you would enjoy these photographs.” And there are two photographs in there. I framed them in my office now. One is a picture of me sitting on the seat talking to Lou and then the second picture is Bill Gates sitting exactly in that spot that I was sitting in talking to Lou Platt.
And, you know, to me, mentorship means so many different things. I’ve had so many different examples of mentors. But, to a junior in college who literally is a nobody, he was such an incredible example of mentorship…He just sort of took this girl and said, “You know what? You have something and I see it. I’m going to show you something even greater.” And to me, it was such a gift. It was so incredible because I hadn’t even thought about my own personal potential ever.Ann Miura-Ko
Now that is a compelling example of excellence that opened a door. And Lou’s willingness to offer some mentorship had a dramatic impact on Ann’s life. Don’t ever underestimate the value of your time…and you probably shouldn’t spend too much time evaluating someone’s success by the car they drive!
Please come back next week because I’m going to share four areas where you can focus your effort to increase the presence of excellence in your life and work. Don’t miss it!
Resources Mentioned In This Episode:
The Tim Ferris Show Ann Miura-Ko — The Path from Shyness to World-Class Debater and Investor (#331)
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