Exposure to Excellence

When events are hard to explain or define and we at a loss for words we conclude with, “Well I’ll know it when I see it.” People use this same model in judging personal performance and appraising employee results, especially in the absence of objective criteria. We are very comfortable assessing normal performance, but extraordinary performance can force us to be vague and make bland statements, such as, “She is the best I’ve ever seen.”

As a leader, I was exposed to varying levels of performance. The more people I saw, the more I developed an appreciation for truly great results. I also cultivated an aversion for truly mediocre results. I watched as managers, who were personally rated average or slightly above average were asked to assess consistent excellent performance. A paradox of the absurd occasionally appeared.  Some people ventured into the realm of rating someone distinguished (above excellent) when they were never rated that highly or ever saw that level of performance in their lives. Their personal experience was not a reliable frame of reference, but they stepped boldly into this domain.

For example, a relatively new Regional Sales Director rated a new District Sales manager as Excellent. The performance measures were based on quantifiable sales results from his team members and competencies related to management and leadership skills. He felt he had mastered the competencies of a manager fully functioning in the job in his first nine months. Also, he felt he had a profound impact on coaching his sales people to reach the sales results. When I asked how he had arrived at these determinations, he replied, “At his level of development, he is the best I’ve ever seen.” I relied in the affirmative. “Yes he is the best you have ever seen, but it is my job to introduce you to more people.” He needed to broaden his field of vision and be exposed to excellence on a grander scale.

The frame of reference is very important in a system, when you are evaluating talent. We speak of someone being a large fish in a small pond. We owe it to the individual to manage their opinions of their performance and put it in the proper context.

Geno is a television producer in Chicago. He told me a story I had heard many times before from superstar high school athletes whose eyes were opened when they went away to college. Geno was a star receiver on his high school football team and expected to dominate when he went to college. However, he was astounded by the level of talent and competition. For you see, all the players on the team were top talent and superstar high school athletes at their respective schools. He told me a story of running out for a pass and being covered by an individual who was a linebacker, who ran with him step for step. “Linebackers”, he said emphatically, “are not supposed to keep up with me. I run the 40 yard dash in 4.3 or 4.4 seconds.” Linebackers where he came from did not have that kind of speed. Geno was exposed to a higher level of excellence.

As a leader, we have to ensure we are evaluating and holding people to a realistically high standard. As individual performers, we cannot look merely at local talent. We have to expand our vision to see people anywhere in the world who may ultimately become our competition. Challenge yourself to truly give your best to be your best, because someday it will be needed to make the grade.

How do you find better talent? How do you push yourself to and beyond excellence? It requires research into the qualities of superior performance and the training measures necessary to get there and maintain it. It also requires introducing yourself to people who have a reputation for greatness in your area of interest. Find out their secrets and techniques to consistently deliver excellence. You must continue your research by reading and watching video. This is supplemented with personal conversations with coaches, mentors and accountability partners. These are people who care about you and will remind you of your promises to yourself and others.

Initially, compete against yourself and elevate your personal statistics. Then, look for documented records of achievement of individuals and teams in your field. Workout, research and study with experts in your area of concentration. If you want to be better, to use a sports analogy you have to scrimmage with the best. I captured this sentiment in a poem by the same title in my book Leadership above the rim – the poetry of possibility. The closing lines are,

“We spar with the upper echelon,

We face Goliath, yet press on,

Content to risk, poised to invest,

The time to scrimmage with the best.”

You must practice with prima donnas and execute with the elite. This exposure to excellence will drive your personal performance to world-class results and enabled you to accurately diagnose and develop excellence in yourself and others.

Copyright © 2010 Orlando Ceaser

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