Excellence is a habit – nice line but where’s the detail

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

Albus Dumbledore understands the discipline of excellence. Becoming excellent at anything is about repeatedly making the right choices . You know from one of the other kitbags, The Secret to Greatness, that Aristotle said something similar, about excellence being a habit, not an act. What Albus and Aristotle haven’t done is actually tell us which habits or which choices to make.

Reading time: 5 minutes

What goes on

Excellence is a habit, the repeated application of choices. From the elite level performers we’ve worked with, we know that the habits and choices are not particularly earth shattering. They just do the simple and important stuff with discipline, every day. So, ignore continuous improvement initiatives and just act like the people in the world of elite sport who get on with trying to improve stuff every day. Excellence is not an initiative or an event. Excellence is something that lives and breathes in how the best go about their work – it’s not a department or job title.

Five performance truths

The brutal reality of high performance life – this is what you need to know

  1. The discipline of excellence starts with a commitment to answering simple questions, regularly – “What will I do today that will help me get better at what I do?” and “What did I do today that has made me better at what I need to do?”
  2. Focusing your desire to improve onto the right things at the right time is a key part of the discipline of excellence, otherwise you’re just full of ambition without focus.
  3. Regular use of performance reviewing is essential if you’re serious about excellence. It’s about skillful, regular reviewing that makes a difference, rather than reviewing as part of an initiative you feel required to comply with!
  4. People who use the pursuit of excellence as a way of thinking and behaving get the benefits. People who feel they need to be rated as excellent as quickly as possible are treating excellence as an end point and usually feel unhelpful pressure as a result.
  5. Everyone is responsible for living the discipline of excellence approach – it’s a shared mission, not a management fad.

Three things to do

  1. Get a clear picture of what or who excellence looks like in your role. You’ve got to have some kind of model in mind that you’re working towards. Get the role model and identify key skills and knowledge they possess that mean you think they’re excellent already.
  2. Get a high boredom threshold! You’re going to be having a lot of simple planning and reviewing discussions with yourself and colleagues, so get used to this and enjoy finding out how well you can put the discipline into practice.
  3. Make sure you’ve got someone who’s going to be your ‘coach’ in your pursuit of excellence. Who’s going to be the person who regularly helps you plan what you’re going to work on and who’s going to challenge and support you to make the plan have an impact?


Andrew’s story

Andrew had been working in his role for a few years and had hit a pretty settled standard of performance. He wasn’t setting the world on fire, but he wasn’t ever any concern to his leaders. He just got on with stuff and did a good job. Quite a few people on his team had moved on while he’d been there and they’d moved on to more challenging positions and had taken on more responsibility. Although happy in his role and how valued he was, Andrew still had ambitions to move into more senior roles.

Andrew was given the chance to work with a coach. At their first meeting, Andrew said that he really wanted to push himself and find out how much more effectively he could be working, especially as he had a lot of experience now. The Coach suggested that Andrew should use the time to have his own excellence ‘bootcamp’. This boot camp would be short, sharp meetings with the coach, over the phone for 6 weeks and the calls would be no more than ten minutes long. On the calls, his coach would simply be helping Andrew to plan what he was going to be doing to deliver excellence during the day, and at the end of the day, Andrew would be asked how well he had stepped up and delivered to an excellent standard. All of these conversations would use the performance profile that Andrew had built with the coach to decide where to focus his efforts to improve.

None of the questions the coach asked were particularly clever, they were just a simple reminder to stick with the discipline of doing the right things as a clear sign that they were committed to seeing if they could be excellent! The questions built a daily habit for Andrew that he was able to keep going with after the ‘bootcamp’ was over. In a short space of time, Andrew had built and was seeing the value of his own continuous improvement initiative! Simple, focused, effective. And having built some great habits, Andrew fancies kicking some rubbish ones next.