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Ward and Sandidge: How to create a culture of excellence

Published: Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

As we consult with various companies, we often notice quite a discrepancy between a leader’s vision and the ideas of that vision that we get from talking with others in the company.

Of course, we expect to see a gap because the leadership is carrying the grand plan for the organization and they know how all of the parts fit into the big picture. But what is striking is how often leaders believe their staff understands and is on board with the current plan much more than they actually are. That invisible gap leads to different groups in the company heading off energetically to two (or more) ever so slightly different destinations.

An example: Many human services organizations espouse the concept of person-centered planning, focusing resources on the needs of the individual being served rather than bureaucratic systems. It seems logical and makes sense, but it turns out to be a lot more difficult than it sounds. Organizations have a natural myopia about making decisions based on what is comfortable for them. The assumption and hope is they’ll receive customers who fit well into what the organization is already doing. Of course, most of these organizations truly believe that they’re doing well by those who depend on them and, for the most part, they are. People are living better, more fulfilling lives than they would if left to their own devices.

But the very best of these organizations, knowing the difficulty of operating in a fully person-centered way, take it as a challenge. They keep setting the bar higher. They experiment with new ways of providing services and measure results by client success, not only on increased efficiency and process standardization. They fight for clarity of mission and never stop driving that through every corner of the organization.

We need leaders to refresh our thinking and planning and to be vigilant for calcification of organizational behavior that could lead away from a company’s promise to customers. Having a plan is only part of the process. The plan begs to be engaged, worked, monitored and fine-tuned. There are many beautiful, elegant, person-centered plans on shelves collecting years of dust while the person who stars in one of those plans molders away, doing the same thing every day, learning nothing, accomplishing nothing. Person-centered planning is a terrific starting point. Creating and continually re-creating an organization that fulfills those plans is an undertaking on a whole different level.

As an owner or leader of an organization who desires a culture of excellence you have to embody the excellence that you want others to have. Projecting your vision and communicating your specific expectation, while essential and important, won’t be nearly enough to create the excellence you envision throughout your organization. Whether you are a small company, a large corporation, or a non-profit, you must be the icon, the center, the exemplar of excellence. If you are not living it, no matter how you articulate it, it will not be engaged, done, or celebrated by your workers.

If you are committed to building an organization of excellence, it is essential that you know you will be judged against the standards you have created and communicated. For instance, if you talk about treating customers with integrity but don’t treat your staff or vendors with integrity, that value has a slim chance of being honored by others. When you make promises, you’ll need to keep them because it all starts with you.

Being an organization of excellence means that you and everyone in your organization live it. Not sometimes, but all the time. And, working together, help each other live up to the promise you make to yourself, to each other, and to your stakeholders. Being consistent and living the values you profess is what provides the frequency that keeps your organization in tune with the value propositions you put forth to staff, vendors and customers. 

Creating and maintaining excellence in any organization requires a lot of vigilance. The key to leading with excellence is to hold yourself and everyone else accountable to a crystal clear vision, live your values, measure for quality and celebrate the excellence that you are achieving.

• Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge, of CreativeCore Media in Algonquin, are marketing, communication, management and training consultants who help small business and nonprofits overcome the marketing and motivational myths that are keeping them and their businesses from unbounded success. Reach them at or go to

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