excellence OVER perfection: laying the foundations for successful execution

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more: access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. So join your host, Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence.

Hi there. Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This episode, excellence over perfection, aka laying the foundations for successful execution. If you want your organization to deliver outstanding results as a leader, you must adopt a mantra of 'excellence over perfection'.

In this episode, we uncover why perfectionism can be debilitating for an organization and how your people will respond to the goal of delivering excellence. First of all, we're going to talk about how perfection can work against you and your ability to drive results. We'll then cover off on a few reasons why some people might unconsciously prefer a culture of perfection. We'll talk about the main benefits for developing a culture of excellence over perfection. And finally, I'm going to give you six things that you can start to do today to engender a culture of excellence in your organization and your people, and, of course, this will be a downloadable at the end that you can pick up for free from the Your CEO Mentor website,

Salvador Dali, the prominent Spanish artist once said, "Have no fear of perfection. You will never reach it," and perfection sounds really good in theory, but it has a number of drawbacks. The first thing is it just takes a really long time. It ignores the Pareto principle, and as we all know, that's the 80/20 rule that says 80% of the results actually come from 20% of the effort. You may have also heard the term the point of diminishing returns, and this, in a nutshell, is the point at which the value you get from continuing to improve a product is less than the investment of time and resources required to make that improvement. This sucks everyone into a hole and one perfectionistic leader can disable a whole team perfectionism. Perfectionism tells your people that their best isn't good enough. It's actually a massive demotivating factor.

Imagine how someone feels when they submit some of their best work, work that they're really proud of, only to have it rejected by their perfectionistic leader. It also reinforces the paradigm of activity over value because so much effort and so much activity can be put into the unattainable quest for perfection and that doesn't actually deliver any value for the organization. If the perfectionism is leader driven and part of the culture, it sets the leader up as the expert and this really clouds the accountability model.

Now, accountability is going to be a big theme throughout this podcast series because accountability is the most fundamental building block to successful execution in any organization, but for the moment, I just want to give you an example from my recent past. This is an example that's very close to my heart because I found out that unwittingly I was driving a culture of perfection in an area that I didn't even realize it.

Now, most larger organizations have a board of directors that governs and oversees the functioning of the company, and the management of the company, through the chief executive, normally reports into the board, At CS Energy, as chief executive I reported into a board of directors and each month we would hold board meetings and board subcommittee meetings. And in preparation for those meetings, we actually produced a number of papers that covered off on the topics that would be addressed in the board meeting. And so these papers were produced by the management team. Now quite often the papers were produced two, three levels below the CEO by the people who were closest to the issue being discussed, and then they'd be reviewed and passed up the line until they got to me.

Now, as the chief executive, it's my accountability to make sure that the papers that go to the board are of the right depth and quality. What I would find myself doing, quite inadvertently in reviewing those papers, was that I would be correcting everything in the papers. What I should've been doing was looking at the substantive content and making sure it was right, and that it was strategically in the right position for the board to have the discussion. Yet, occasionally, I'd be correcting spelling and grammar, and when I was editing those, and they were getting passed back down to the authors, the message I was actually sending was that this paper has to be perfect and if you haven't got the right grammar or spelling, I'm not going to accept it. I'm going to push it back to you.

So finally it dawned on me what I was actually doing. I was absolving everyone from the author to me of having to take accountability for the quality of the paper that had been produced because they knew that at the end of the day I was the one who is going to take accountability for it. I'd make sure it was spell checked. I'd make sure the grammar was right, and I'd make sure the content was what I wanted, but it left me in the place where I had to become the arbiter of quality for this product, and there was a lot of work in that.

Now, I'm happy to report that I did catch myself on this, after a while, and by the time I left CS Energy, I wasn't even reviewing the board papers. Occasionally I'd have an executive come to me and say, "Marty, I want you to take a look at this one because I'm not really sure if this is the right angle to take," and I'd give them some advice, but other than that I'll let the accountable executive actually be accountable. And that was a really big lesson for me, and it was only a recent one. So even though I'd had a massive belief in the value of excellence over perfection for many years, and I'd spent five years driving it through the CS Energy organization, I still found myself getting caught out by it.

So let's move on and talk a little bit about why some people might prefer a culture of perfection over a culture of excellence. And the first thing is it's actually quite safe. As long as you're perfecting something, you can't be blamed for not producing it, but once you actually deliver something, it can be evaluated and it can be critiqued and so sometimes it's safer not to produce it at all.

Now, when I was scripting this episode, a quote came into my head, which I am going to use here, but I'm going to preface this by saying I bet London to a brick that this is the only business or leadership podcast you listened to that has a quote from the movie Zoolander. Now, for those of you who aren't familiar, Derek Zoolander, played by Ben Stiller, is a male supermodel and he's being interviewed for a piece in Time magazine where he starts talking about the new look he's been perfecting. The look is called 'Magnum', and as Derek Zoolander tells a story, he's been working on the look for 10 years. So when the journalist skeptically asks for a demonstration of the look, he simply laughs and says, "Ah, Matilda. It's nowhere near ready!". Now I think all of us can be guilty of the 'Magnum Syndrome' at some point.

The second common psychological underpinning for some people to prefer perfection over excellence is that it supports a fear of failure with a rational excuse. Many people have a fear of failure, but perfectionism lets them off the hook. It actually turns a negative into a positive. So rather than saying, "I'm afraid that this won't be good enough," it's actually bound by the much more positive intent of, "I'm pursuing perfection." Doesn't that sound so much better?

The third reason that I've commonly observed is really interesting psychologically. When people realize that they're in a perfectionist culture and that what they do isn't going to be good enough, it lets them off the hook and they fall into the mentality that says, "I'm just a cog in the wheel. I can't really influence things."

Now, can you imagine trying to drive your organization to exceptional delivering and exceptional value when you have a whole lot of people thinking they're a cog in the wheel and that they can't influence what happens in the organization? But psychologically for people, it keeps them in a pretty safe place, relatively speaking, because if you accept that you do have influence and control over many things, it then puts the onus on you to take accountability for doing something about it, and this can be a scary place to be in an organization, particularly if it's an organization in which trust is low.

Let's move on and explore the main benefits of developing the culture of excellence over perfection. First thing is it empowers your people to take control and as much as some people may fear this, they eventually get used to it and they love it. They're completely different when they work in that environment. We know that decision making is best and closest to the relevant information, but decisions and accountability can only be pushed to the right level if people at that level are empowered to make those decisions, they have the right resources and they have the mandate from their leadership to go ahead and do it. An excellence culture, where people are encouraged to have a go, is essential in making this possible.

The second benefit is that it genuinely sends the signal that people are allowed to make mistakes. And this is critical to getting optimum results because you want people who ultimately have good judgment. As Will Rogers once said, though, "Good judgment comes from experience and a lot of that comes from bad judgment," so you've got to let that play out if you want your people to improve.

Rewarding people, not for perfect outcomes, but for being courageous enough to have a go, showing initiative and drive, and getting results, even if imperfect is what you need to drive as a leader. I can recall any number of discussions over the years that I've had with boards and CEOs whom I worked for where I've had to defend a failure because that failure was the result of a genuine attempt to innovate and improve the business, and in my book that's okay.

The third benefit is that it builds self-esteem and confidence in your people. Once people start to get back some control, and realize that they can make a difference in their immediate environment, their approach to the job actually changes. And in my experience, nothing improves the organizational climate, that drives a high-performance culture faster or more effectively than this one thing.

The fourth and final benefit is that a culture of excellence lets you off the hook as being the one, who has to know everything or be ultimately satisfied with the outcomes. Being the arbiter of perfect outcomes puts you at the centre of all decisions and as a leader, this is the last place you want to be. The flow of value atrophies in your organization as people try to second guess what it is that you actually want and what's going to make you happy. They hesitate because they know it's really hard to meet your lofty standards. They focus more on what your reaction is going to be to something rather than getting the best outcome and getting the job done. After all that, once they actually do produce something for you, they have to wait for you to make your decision and because of your drive to perfection, you always have loads of decisions to make. This slows value to a trickle.

So hopefully we're all on the same page now, about the fact that the excellence culture is what we should all be striving for. Perfectionism is a killer. But now, let's get practical. What are the six things that you can start to do right from today to engender a culture of excellence? Now, most of the things on this list are designed to build in your people the trust and confidence that perfection isn't the required standard and once they know that there'll be freed up to actually have a go.

Number one, reward the pursuit of excellence, especially when it results in failure. You've got to look for instances where people demonstrate that they are moving forward with a sense of achieving outcomes and then reward them for it. Now, in this case, reward is the one-on-one feedback that tells him in a specific, timely and honest way that what they've done is what you're looking for and that it's fantastic.

To quote my good friend Danny Hovey, "You've got to reward the approximations of desired behavior." So whenever you see someone who's just trying to do the right thing, even if they're not doing it the way you might want them to, get on that straight away and give them the encouragement and give them the support. But as well as doing the one-on-one feedback, storytelling more broadly throughout the business will help to consolidate the concept and affirm what behaviors you are seeking. It's basically going to let people know what good looks like and once people see that, they'll have a crack at trying to achieve it for you.

Number two, ensure that the leaders below you can report on how they're fostering the culture of excellence over perfection. Just like everything else you have your leaders do, make sure you hold them accountable for delivering on your intent of driving the excellence message. But they've got to be able to describe to you what they're doing and how they're doing it. And it's got to be front of mind for them because they've got to be talking about it all the time. The perfect place to have them talk about it is in your one-on-one meetings with them, which I assume you do regularly. And at those points, you have the opportunity to guide them.

Number three, and this is a cracker, get your people used to giving you outputs in draft form so that you can reinforce the concept of iterations. Now, many of you will be familiar with the concept of agile methodologies, an iterative approach to discovering what the right answer is. If you can get your direct reports into the swing of excellence in our reports through producing drafts early on, it will really change the way you do business. So start by setting the expectation that you're happy for a deliverable in its early phases to be as rough as guts and that you expect to refine it as you go.

So a great example, recently for me, was the strategy development piece that one of my executives was undertaking. And I asked how long it would take before I'd have the strategy in front of me. What they said was it was going to take eight to 10 weeks. Now. I said, "Look, eight to 10 weeks is fine. I'm happy with that, but guess what? Two weeks from today, I want to see a draft. I don't care how rough it is, I don't care if you have it on the back of the table napkin. I just want to be able to start the conversation and see where you're heading with it." The bonus with this is it you can pick up on any major issues early on and give some overall directional feedback to make sure that your people are heading in the right direction. Now, language is so important here and I couldn't count the number of times I used the expression, "That's good enough," and telling people that, that's good enough reinforces that you genuinely do believe in the culture of excellence over perfection.

Number four is pretty straightforward. Reward speed of decisions, particularly tough decisions. Now, reward here once again is simply strong and immediate reinforcement through feedback, but it also gives you the opportunity to tell more stories and to actually praise people who've made decisions quickly to keep the teams moving forward.

Now, number five, we've spoken a little bit about this earlier. You need to push accountability as far down through the organization as you possibly can, and the beauty of this is that it actually requires empowerment at the source for this to work. You can't empower effectively unless there's an execution model that holds people to account for what they do and how they do it.

Finally, make sure that you understand and focus your people on the underlying risk of any piece of activity they undertake because when you break it down, all decisions are about risk. How much risk am I prepared to take in order to attain the expected rewards? Or conversely, if this fails, what risk do I expose the organization too? Understanding the risk will inform you of how close to the 80% that Pareto talks about you need to be. Some low-risk things you can happily risk getting only 50 to 70% right without any problems at all, but there a higher risk things that your organization is going to deal with that you have to put in the additional effort to take it a bit further than the prescribed 80%.

Obviously, understanding and dealing with risk is another podcast episode in itself, so that brings us to the end of episode three, excellence over perfection. I really hope you've enjoyed it. Don't forget to pick up the free downloadable, head to the Your CEO Mentor website at www.yourceomentor.com/episode3.

Thanks very much for joining us and remember at Your CEO Mentor our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally, so if you liked this episode, please subscribe to the podcast and rate it so that we can reach even more leaders. I look forward to next week's episode where we take a step back to ask the eternal question, What is leadership? Really? Until then, I know you'll take every opportunity you can to be a no bullshit leader.