Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

On The Intolerance Of Mediocrity

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5117ec57cab7b.imageI 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?

  1. Strive every day to be the best in the world.
  2. Be completely intolerant of mediocrity.
  3. Constantly innovate and push the envelope.
  4. 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 times 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?

 

*** By the way, I have written a short and focused e-book with my best ideas and tools to help you build and sustain a winning culture in your organization. It sells for just $4.99. If you’d like to learn more about the book here is a link: Winning Culture e-book

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Comments

  1. Sheila Spence says:

    Good blog John, I think there is room for moderation without being a slacker. Asking for and expecting someone’s best on a consistent basis can reveal excellent (yes, I said excellent) and… long term results. Not perfection. As a hard driver myself, I like the thought of unrelenting and constant excellence, but I know I cannot not achieve it 100% of the time, nor can the most dedicated around me. But, expecting one’s REAL best without excuses, seems realistic and doable.

    • Hey, it’s exciting to get blog feedback from my wife! Thank you for the extremely thoughtful reply, I think you and I are on the same page, we both like to strive for excellence but we both realize that you can’t do it 100% of the time and perfection is not achievable. With that said, I will tell you that you’re as close to delivering perfection and excellence every day as anyone I’ve ever worked with. Love you – John

  2. For me about service. Service to the individual and service to the group. I can’t get past the thought that tolerating mediocre performance isn’t serving the person performing at that level. Now we’re assuming (correctly I think) that mediocre means something better is not just possible, but it’s been proven to exist at some point. For example, in coaching little kids I can give them an instruction and ask, “Do you understand?” Every head will nod. Enter the next vital step in coaching, “Show me.” Okay, now it’s clear they don’t understand. So we coach some more until they are able to demonstrate they can perform it exactly as we want. Then I tell them, “Now I expect you to perform it that well every time because you’ve now shown me you’re able to do it well.” How am I helping them if I let them off the hook and tolerate their poor execution of something they’ve proven can done well? I’m not. Besides, high performance demands high accountability. High performers crave it. It’s the sloths who abhor it. Accountability doesn’t mean being mean, or abusive. It’s having a high expectation for what we (and others) are capable of producing. I think it’s consistency, not perfection. Thanks, John.

  3. John, wow this is spot on! #1 and #3 are givens for start-up, tech-based companies. #4 is the emphasis of any company that loves people more than products/services. But #2 is a must-have for any solid, long-term business. For me, I’ve always been committed to this and failed at it many times. For those who adopt this mentality, I have no doubt they’ll be seen as harsh and demanding. Instead, I have tried, since the beginning of my company, to adopt a team wide intolerance of mediocrity. If you get your team on the same page here, intolerance isn’t harsh. In fact, intolerance becomes a standard for mutual accountability. I’m really grateful for this reminder; fantastic blog article! Thank you!

  4. Wow! this smacked me right upside the head. This is my challenge! It seems so simple in my mind. Do it better than the customer expects! Be the best when you step thru that door everyday. Its one of the few things that sets us as a business apart, and its the subconscious level our customers pick up on….. Pisses me OFF when anyone on my team half asses it with respect to our customers…. consequently i get called the above, often!!!! But we grow virtually every year above all our other branches! Great read. Thank you

  5. Donna Gilbert says:

    Good article John; I think you are exactly right. As a “recovering perfectionist”, I now realize that just because something isn’t perfect, it does not mean that it is not good – or good enough. I think that when an individual adopts this attitude, not only do you become a person that is much easier to work with, but you end up sacrificing a lot less in terms of family and quality of life. You also reduce the amount of stress in your life.

  6. Jay Clary says:

    John, your 4 step formula for excellence is great. I would only add one thing to #4; deliver a totally world-class experience to every customer – based on understanding what “good” looks like in their eyes.
    Thanks for sharing!

  7. William Ten Eyck says:

    John,
    I agree with all 4 points and your struggle with #2. No pun intended. I too have pushed myself to where I would call myself an ass! I find the biggest struggle in achieving greatness or even world class is that the company HR is not behind you on this mission when you push people into uncomfortable senarios, which can inturn almost self inflict your own demise at the company you are trying to make world class.

  8. As a high performing Chef, I have found that those traits of work ethic, motivation to perform, and adaptability with their product in mind is essential. Now, in my shift to residential renovations I find frustration, but remember the trick learned early.

    Accountability… To one level beyond what I feel is necessary to hit the mark. Does it matter that I want the plate put in the window with the same orientation evry time? No. But, itnis more likely that the presentation will be crisp, plate hot, sauce in the right spot etc. So,

    Show up on time with tools and tasks in mind, and let me know the minute you start on site. I’ve been considering an hourly bonus if you hit certain metrics of professionalism.

  9. I agree John. I often use the parallel of the restaurant industry with dental clients. The intolerance struggle is real for a lot of dentists, who are taught to strive for perfection. I believe the balance can be found in defining the difference between mediocrity and making mistakes. While making mistakes can help people learn to be better at what they do, mediocrity is found when they make mistakes and don’t care.

  10. Jeff Lyons says:

    This was a helpful read, John. It put a voice to something I’ve struggled with. So it’s nice to know that this is something others think about and struggle with. I think too often people just assume that the pursuit of excellence is just a matter of following the checklist and has no tradeoffs. In this case, being perceived as an ass isn’t just a personal impact, it limits your ability to be an inspirational leader to some extent. So it’s important to recognize and balance.

    It also brings up the subject of creating an environment and systems that allow non-rockstars to deliver very high-quality output. So tolerating mediocrity isn’t just about mediocre people, it’s about mediocre results, which can be a system/environment issue. (I feel like I’m preaching the obvious to the choir here.)

    I also like the comments above about not letting perfect stand in the way of good enough.

    Lots of really meaty stuff to work with on this topic, John!

    – J

    • Jeff, I really appreciate your comments, that means a lot coming from you. Having known you for several years and watched you pursue your craft with great passion I know that you struggle with this sort of thing as much as I do. Actually, to all of the folks who have given feedback – thank you very much for contributing to this conversation, I am really enjoying what everyone has to say. Thanks so much – John

  11. John: You attain excellence while being one of the nicest guys around. I believe in excellence and strive for it in all things, and yet I’m often called a nice guy, and I don’t think that at all diminishes what I do! When the young chef worries about whether people will like him if he’s good enough to be top ten, I just think of Thomas Keller at The French Laundry and how much his people seem to love him. He’s no slacker and yet gets rave reviews from those he’s mentored. I like to think intolerance of mediocrity, or even of less than the best, can take a form that doesn’t involve shouting profanities and being a Steve Jobs to people!

  12. Hi John,
    To make a long story short, my problem is that the people that I work with are laid back and seem to have a very indifferent attitude. There is absolutely no urgency in anything they do. Further to this they seem to have what I call Tunnel Vision, they are not receptive to any form of change and are too lazy to even think of anything out of the norm.
    By the way, I run a real estate agency and am the founding partner of the company.
    How do I get them to get out of their comfort zone and move forward.

    • I have a few ideas around this: Do they have clear, measurable and specific performance expectations? If so, how are they held accountable to those expectations? Are you giving positive reinforcement for positive behaviors – and negative reinforcement for negative actions/results? If they can come into the office and be lazy, not really give it their full effort, and they keep their jobs – then you are training them to act that way. Actually – I am going to write a blog on this right now — it will be up on this site in a few hours. Thanks Nixon!!

  13. Bill Ellis says:

    John:

    As echoed by the previous comments, this is an outstanding blog on a subject many struggle with, including myself. I do believe that one thing good business leaders need to do with staff before embarking on the journey to excellence is to have very open and candid conversation with staff as to what poor, mediocre, good, outstanding and world class look like. While this may seem self-evident, I think that some of the frustration that can occur on this journey is that many times employees have very different ideas about what the continuum of performance looks like, sometimes it because they are disengaged but other times it is because they have experiences that have shaped a different belief system. Of course this doesn’t mean that through good communication and some education that mutual goals can’t be achieved. The other point is defining the “why” of world class service and what it can mean to the business and each individual employee, otherwise it can seem like they just have this boss who is obsessed with something for his or her own gain.

  14. Patrick says:

    John – apparently you and I are identical in the way we work, think, and live in general. I have been called “aggresive” and “far too demanding” by colleagues and distributors so when I read this post I laughed to myself. I continue to do well and perform at a top-level and grow my career and improve my life, and I honestly don’t know where those people are right now. Probably still arriving late to the office, taking long coffee breaks, and leaving early…. I’ve asked my superiors on numerous occasions if I should back-off or if I expect too much and every time they have told me “no – keep doing exactly what you’re doing”. Although I do try to tread carefully I do worry that I’m upsetting some people. I work internationally and that’s a really tough one as different cultures will tolerate this differently. Curious to hear your thoughts on the international aspect… We should definitely have a drink some time, I think we’d see eye-to-eye on almost everything – let me know if you’re ever in Singapore! Regards, Patrick

    • Patrick — thanks for the comments – hope that you are doing fantastic and that I get to take you up on meeting for a drink in Singapore soon!

  15. Michal Petras says:

    A brilliant article. And a great point and insight. I know one think. To make an enormous effort to be better everyday a bit creates huge advantage for everyone who hates mediocrity.

  16. Excellent read as usual!! We have basically done an on the fly tear down and build up of our team to get the right people on the bus.
    There is one person still left who is under performing. The other team members are now holding this individual accountable for his performance. It won’t be long before they get straight or get off the bus. The push for excellence is a constant pursuit. Any advice for keeping fresh and energized when the struggle wears us down and we feel or get saggy?? Does that make sense?
    Paul –

    • Paul, thanks for the comments and here are my ideas. Keep the vision of what you are all trying to accomplish clearly in mind and communicated consistently, let people know why they are doing what they are doing. Also, plan for some small wins to keep the momentum going. In addition, recognize people on the team who are a living example of what you want the rest of the team to be like. Lastly, celebrate and have some fun together, build team camaraderie and cohesion. These things should help keep people focused and motivated. Let me know if you have any other questions – John

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  1. […] week I posted a blog that got a lot of comments, it was called: On The Intolerance Of Mediocrity. One of the folks that shared some feedback indicated that he was struggling with employees that […]

  2. […] Spence of Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence contributed On the Intolerance of Mediocrity.  John shares insights from a top chef’s four-step […]