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How serious are you about excellence? Your next 5 minutes will tell us

Tom Peters co-wrote the first business bestseller, In Search Of Excellence. I was a teenager when it came out, and I looked through my father’s copy. I lacked the experience to make any real sense of it, but I remember thinking, for the first time, that perhaps one could find a calling and a profession in business, not just an occupation. I went on to do just that.

Tom went on to become a “management guru” of international renown. His new book, The Excellence Dividend, is the sequel, written decades later. It is a collection of Tom’s impassioned outpourings over the years.

“Excellence” became an overused word. In my own career I see it being thrown around by all and sundry to describe their work, their organizations, their aspirations. And yet, most people are, by definition, not excellent. Mediocrity and mimicry are too often cloaked in noble-sounding words.

So those who truly want to be excellent and create excellence: what should they do? You can be very thoughtful and insightful about your strategy, but unable to translate it to success on the ground. You can be very passionate about getting things done, but you may end up barking up all the wrong trees if you haven’t been paying attention to the changing fundamentals in your industry.

I was struck by an early chapter in Tom’s new book, entitled “Excellence is the Next Five Minutes.” Therein lies one of the clues about the seeds of outstanding performance. Tom trumpets: excellence is not a long-term aspiration. Excellence is the next five minutes.

By which he means: what are you just about to do? Are you committed to making that thing the best it can possibly be? The next five minutes could be: the conversation you are just about to have with a team member – will it create an impetus to do something to a high standard? Will it energize that person to aim higher? The next five minutes could be a phone call you are about to make to a customer. Will you be listening carefully and noting what you need to do to improve your product, or shaking your head and making excuses? The next five minutes could be the email you are about to write. Will you think it through properly, make sure you don’t make silly grammatical errors, be clear and be precise?

Excellence, in other words, will not come from that long-term cultural change project you are initiating in order to make your organization more agile and more innovative; it will not come from the product quality enhancement initiative you have commissioned on the factory floor; it will not come from the new enterprise-wide IT system you are planning so that you can serve customers better.

Excellence comes from the leader, first and foremost. And five minutes of observing a leader in action can reveal whether this leader has it in him or her to set the standard for the brutally demanding things that genuine excellence entails. A leader who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t empathize, who doesn’t bother with niceties, who doesn’t care about outcomes – that leader ain’t creating excellence anytime soon. No matter how much is about to be spent on strategies and projects and transformations.

Excellence also comes from you. From not waiting for your leaders to become excellent, or for your facilities to be modernized. Excellence is also your next five minutes. How well will you do the task you are working on right now? How engaged will you be in solving a problem in the meeting you’re sitting in? How helpful will you be with the colleague who’s facing a deadline?

Because if we can’t be excellent in the moment, this moment, we can’t be excellent in the future. True achievement does not depend on having all your ducks in a row, all systems in place, all support mechanisms working. It comes from doing the best you can with what you have at the time you have it. It is a mindset, not an aspiration.

When you are committed to giving everything your best shot, your shots will only get better. When you work your socks off to do well, the paths to success will reveal themselves. Good strategies will emerge; worthwhile projects will be undertaken; results will ensue. Great leaders spend every minute being the best they can be for others. Without the excellence mindset, however, most things will fall on rocky ground.

I’ll leave you now. I’m sure you have something to do over the next five minutes.

(Sunday Nation, 2 September 2018)

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