Setting Higher Standards

In business and life, we all get to choose when we raise or lower standards, when we subsidize mediocrity and when we settle for something less than we desire.

Standards provide a benchmark for us to aspire to achieve in sports, school, work, and life. There is often a friend, colleague or family member that tries to convince us that the standards are too high (and rarely those that say they are also low–these are the ones that should be your partners for life). Motivations vary for people you trust talking you out of higher standards, but it often comes down to them not wanting you to make them leave their comfort zones. They somehow feel they are not enough and that they will lose something in themselves if you succeed.

You can succumb to their views, pull them up with you, or do your thing and look around at the end to see if they are still there. Whatever the outcome, your identity, self-esteem and confidence levels will be served by you setting and reaching the higher standards. Doing anything else will lead to personal disappointment and those same negative ninnies will either not be around to comfort you or will silently celebrate your defeat.

We often promote a known employee into roles for which he is not ready and for which we didn’t prepare him. The identified person has the air of familiarity and, often, proximity. We believe we know what we have and accept their limitations. It is a comfortable choice. But if it is the wrong choice, the people now working on Mr. Familiar’s team may feel they have been let down as the new leader finds his way into unfamiliar territory. That new leader gets the benefit of the doubt to start, but only for a short period and for no longer than the period that new leader is OPENLY COMMUNICATING WITH HIS NEW TEAM MEMBERS. If the leader goes into a hole, he will be marginalized only weeks after taking the post and success in that role is unlikely.

If you choose to promote the familiar because it is a comfortable choice in the short term, be prepared to coach and support that individual with the necessary tools and clear expectations to help him and the team succeed. If you don’t, the leader may be frustrated in his new role, reducing his productivity from being a world-class individual contributor to mediocre manager. And it’s YOUR FAULT. Further, if team members quit as a result of the new leader, the company suffers. And even worse, if they stop in place, the company suffers and you will struggle to figure out why over a much more extended period.

We sometimes settle when the cost of pushing for better gets merely too high regarding time, money and effort spent to reach our standard. One example of our logic is the belief that you need the help and if this person doesn’t do it, you are stuck with the responsibility yourself. This is a powerful motivator and a logical reason to settle, but only if the there are other standards set that you continue striving to reach. More often, I see leaders settling too soon. The grind of doing the rote work required to come up with multiple paths, design and test each and roll them out is just too much. This suggests several possibilities: 1) You’ve set an impotent standard not worth achieving 2) You’ve told yourself a story that there are no resources available to help you 3) You see mediocrity around you and finally succumb to being the average of the five people you hang around with the most.

Takeaway: Set standards that are worth your time and energy!

We have an opportunity every day to set a personal standard for achievement that gets us to a new level. Some tactics we can use along the way:

1. Private victories first–the insight gained on the fifth read of a CEO memo, the key piece of data on the tenth iteration of a spreadsheet, the infographic on the seventh draft of your client presentation that is worth the right thousand words.

2. Surround yourself with truth tellers–Sycophants leave first, magical thinkers leave next, and hold on to the truth tellers that provide you with a view of current reality and who help you get to the next level.

3. Communication matters–Provide your team with as much information as you can, give them insights into your hopes and doubts, make it safe for them to help and tell the truth.

4. Step up–To difficult conversations, to constructive confrontations, to another level of performance, to trusting people who raise their hands.