Why is excellence so hard to come by?

How many times have you been blown away by the supreme excellence of an interaction or service experience, in the last week or month?

OK, if blown away is too high of a bar, how about being impressed by an interaction or service or feeling that it was truly beyond your expectations?

I think that if you were honest, you would probably admit that these unforgettable experiences of excellence are far apart.

It’s not that they don’t exist. They do! But they are rare. For the most part, we have lowered our expectations and standards to accept mediocracy in most interactions and services.

If you go online and read the mission statement or values of most known businesses most include the word excellence or reference it. As an example: American Airlines pledges to provide its customer with “The highest quality air travel, including in warmth and friendliness…” Walmart wants to be “The best retailer in the hearts and minds of consumers and employees…” Hilton hotels have a particularly cool set of values based on the letters of its brand name, with a lot of pledged excellence included. In most businesses the vision, mission and values are plastered on the walls of their reception or in their office corridors.

But, how many times have you gone into a store or checked in at a hotel or arrived at your preferred airline counter only to receive an unwelcoming, impatient or even rude attitude from the service representative? How many times have you been served in a restaurant by a sloppy or inattentive server? The list goes on, and this is the norm in most teams and organizations, many of which are extremely successful in their field.

Teams often tell me that they want to go from good to great. It’s a catchy slogan, however, in most teams I coach, interact with or receive service from ‘good seems to be good enough‘.

People don’t return phone calls, they don’t do what they say or take responsibility. Excuses are tolerated everywhere and going the extra mile to get the job done, no matter what, is a rare occurrence.

Most leaders are either not committed to excellence or they are too comfortable, lazy or resigned to care. In many cases leaders simply don’t have the courage and resolve to generate a culture of excellence in their teams, beyond the slogans.

However, when we encounter these experiences of excellence that blow us away they are exhilarating. These moments disrupt our cynicism for a moment and remind us of just how great things could, and perhaps should, be.

When you think of excellence certain brands come to mind. Apple is probably still at the top of the list. The late Steve Job instilled in Apple a culture of insanely great products. He obsessed over every detail and infected his teams with the same meticulous and proud attitude. Still today, even after many other companies have followed suit, Apple is cited everywhere as the benchmark for excellence.

While NASA didn’t come up with the concept of Total Quality Management and Zero Defects, it was associated with it for many years. I guess when it comes to sending people to space no one would expect or accept a lesser standard. So, why can’t we feel the same about the other important parts of our life?

Some airlines simply have poor service. Others are inconsistent. Air Canada is my preferred airline and it has come a long way in improving its excellence. However, when you fly with the likes of Singapore Airlines and Emirates, while they are not perfect, they are still in a league of their own when it comes to excellence.

When it comes to hotels there are the commonly recognized brands that are associated with excellence like The Four Seasons and The Ritz Carlton. I tend to stay at the Hilton chain, which doesn’t have a great reputation for excellence. Some Hilton locations definitely contribute to that bad rep. However, a few Hilton locations have impressed me with their consistent excellent attitude and service. In all these exceptional locations the defining factor is always the hotel leader. A committed leader can drive the mindset of excellence in his or her team. If they are not doing that, they are likely perpetuating the negligence and mediocracy.

Several years ago I supported a new leader who inherited a struggling US sales team in a known technology company. The leader boosted revenue 10-fold over four years to $1.7 billions after getting his skeptical managers and employees to adopt what they referred to as a culture of “unstoppable commitment“.

An inspiring leader I recently worked with wanted to elevate the relevance, impact, and brand of his regional service team. He wanted his team members to “have fire in their eyes” as he put it. After a frank and powerful conversation about the current state of affairs, all members of his leadership team took on a commitment to drive excellence in everything they do! I am confident they will follow through and live up to this because for them, this audacious pledge is a must have, not a nice to have.

Brands are not the product of fancy PR or marketing campaigns. Yes, these help, but ultimately your brand is a reflection of your organizational culture and people’s commitment and attitude.

If lack of excellence is bothering you too and you want to take your team to a new level, start by taking a clear and bold stand for excellence and then infect your team members with the same commitment.

After you get your team members to own the lack of excellence, enroll them in a new conversation and game. Create a new conspiracy for excellence. Brand your commitment in a way that is meaningful to your team, similar to some of the examples I highlighted in this blog. Outline clear plans for implementation and then drive and manage your plan like a NASA mission.

There isn’t a team, business or cause too small or unworthy of excellence.

Founder and President of Quantum Performance Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in generating total alignment and engagement in organizations.

His work has encompassed a broad range of industries including banking, telecommunications, manufacturing, entertainment, real estate, retail, startups and non-profits.

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