I have spent the last 20 years of my career studying excellence. I have read dozens if not hundreds of books on the topic, interviewed CEOs, Olympic gold medalists, artists, musicians and other people who have achieved preeminence in their field. I especially enjoy spending time with world-class chefs who are insanely focused on producing only the finest dishes they can humanly make. Recently I read an article from one of the top chefs in the world that discussed how he built his restaurant into one of the most revered eateries on the face of the earth.
His simple four-step formula for excellence?
Strive every day to be the best in the world.
Be completely intolerant of mediocrity.
Constantly innovate and push the envelope.
Deliver a truly world-class dining experience to every customer.
I read that list and thought to myself that you could pretty much copy it, change number four a little bit, and it would apply to being excellent in nearly any business. But I have one big problem, its number two, something I believe in very strongly, but can cause a tremendous amount of stress in your life.
For those of us who want to be highly regarded at what we do, I believe it takes a complete intolerance of mediocrity, both in yourself and in those you work with. However, taking on that attitude means that you will often be frustrated and sometimes be seen as too aggressive or even a bully. I have been mentoring a young man that wants to be one of the top 10 chefs in the world and during a recent breakfast he asked me, “If I become one of the best chefs in the world, will any of the people that work for me like me?” And I quickly answered, “No, they will think you’re an asshole.” I know it sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. In order for him to demand near perfection and be completely intolerant of anything less than excellent, he will have to step on a lot of toes and bruise a lot of egos.
Which brings me back to…me.
I struggle mightily with this idea. I coach all my clients to stop tolerating mediocrity and to remove anyone on their team that is not a solid contributor to the success of the organization. According to a recent test I took, I literally broke the scale on self-competitiveness, so I obviously have no problem (or perhaps it is a problem) in pushing myself very hard to achieve excellent results. But I will say that my focus on making myself and my company absolutely the best I possibly can does make it extremely hard on the people that work with me and the vendors we do business with. I am accused by many of being too harsh, unrealistic and overly demanding – which part of me takes is a great compliment and the other part of me feels almost embarrassed about because I know how difficult it can be to work with me.
In the end, though, I know that to achieve a high level of success I must be unwilling to settle for mediocrity. On the other hand, I am coming to the realization that the distance between “Mediocrity – Good – Great – World-Class” has a lot of room for delivering fantastic work, without having to be constantly stressed and frustrated over not delivering world-class work. I understand now that driving for near perfection can often time drive people into the ground, yet if I challenge them to deliver the best they possibly can a level that I can accept as really, really great work – then I don’t have to be an ass. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but one that I’m working on.
What about you?