What is excellence?
I have always looked for challenges. Anything that came easy did not excite me. My learning that it is the extraordinary goal that inspires extraordinary effort is very personal to me. In the plantation industry I constantly focused on setting new records. And over the years I was able to do this in all aspects of tea and rubber planting. I set the record in yield per hectare, in work tasks in various cultivation activities, and in the price of the manufactured product.
1983-86 were boom years for tea in South India. Anything that was produced would sell. The biggest buyers were the Russians who bought on the rupee trade agreements between the governments of both countries. Anything that could be manufactured in South India was bought by the USSR. Quality went out the window. Some people were able to see the writing on the wall and tried to get manufacturers to focus on quality and to get out of the commodity market and instead create value-added standalone brands. That, however, meant investing in brand building and hard work in maintaining quality standards. Since people were making money, nobody was interested in listening to anything that meant more work or investment. Eventually, of course, the inevitable happened. When USSR collapsed, it almost took down the South Indian tea industry with it. Some companies shut down. Others were more fortunate. But the whole industry faced some really hard times.
Interestingly, success seems to breed fear of failure. This is a paradox since success should really build confidence. It does that too, but what seems to happen over the years is that we become progressively more afraid of losing what we have and our ability to take risks decreases. This explains why entrepreneurs who have built large organizations are so afraid to allow others to take the same kind of risks that they took when they were alone and creating the company. Somehow, as they succeed, people who build organizations seem to forget the real lessons of their experience:
- That it was speed of reaction and the ability to take risks that gave them the competitive advantage.
- That it was the willingness to put themselves on the line, which built their credibility.
- That it was staying in touch with customers that helped them anticipate trends.
Their fear of failure seems to extend even more to their own children, a phenomenon that we see in many family-owned companies where the old, often senile, patriarch rules supreme and holds the strings of power and will not allow younger successors to function. Eventually, such organizations break-up, usually with a lot of rancor, as rebellion against authority comes to a head and the son has no alternative but to break away.
This fear of failure has many respectable names: Consolidation of gains, Stability, Creating Permanence and so on.
What is forgotten is that life is about change and positive change is growth. That growth is not about looking with a satisfied glow at what exists but seeking what might be. And that all growth is essentially characterized by a lack of stability, living with impermanence, and spending what you must to fuel what you aspire to create. This is forgotten, not by chance or accident. It is forgotten deliberately, albeit sometimes unconsciously. And it is done to deal with the fear of failure if one continues to take risk.
So, what is the alternative?
It is to practice change even when there is no need for it.
Some organizations create think-tanks whose job is to conceptualize hypothetical threat situations and suggest solutions. One can use this or any other method, but it is an excellent idea to spend some time and energy in anticipating the future and preparing for it. I personally make it a point to do this kind of reflective observation every so often. The important thing is to make this an ongoing process, no matter how you do it. Anticipating change is the first step to creating game changers that will put you in the driving seat. That is the only guarantee of permanence in a world where permanence is against nature. Any other route in my view only guarantees stagnation of ideas, sanctification of monumental stupidity, and calcification of the mind.
The single biggest and most critical requirement of success is the desire to be the best. No matter what you may do – if you want to succeed, you need to be passionate about what you do and want to be the best at it. This is something that I have been aware of all my life. I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. Read the most, get the best results at school, train my dog so that we would win in tracking and show championships, school my horse so that we would win in dressage competitions every time, climb the biggest mountain I could find, do what nobody had done before, go where nobody had gone before me. Always trying to excel in whatever I put my hand to. I never saw any thrill in simply doing more of the same. I always wanted to do something new. And that’s a very cool way to live.
It is not that I succeeded on every occasion. But I made a serious effort every time. And when I failed, I used the other technique that I had learnt early in life; acknowledge ownership, face the brutal reality, and analyze failure. No justification of mistakes. No blaming others. Take the responsibility for my own actions. See what went wrong and why. See what I needed to do to ensure that the mistake never happened again. The ‘pin and hole’ principle in engineering; fool proofing the system so that it becomes impossible to make a mistake. Not leaving the issue to individual discretion but creating a system to ensure that the correct procedure is followed every time. These are two principles that I have always tried to follow in my life: try to be the best and own up to mistakes.
A third principle that I have always tried to follow is to actively seek feedback. And then to listen to it without defensiveness. No justification or argument with the person giving the feedback, always remembering that my intention is inside my heart. What we intended to convey is less important than what we did convey. What the other person sees is the action, not the intention. And if the action did not convey the intention, then the action failed and must change, because for all of us, perception is reality.
Being passionate about what you do is essential for anyone who wants to be the best in their work. For me, this has never been a matter of choice but something that I have always held as inevitable. If I do something, then it must be the best that I can possibly do. Nothing less. If I am in a job where I cannot be passionate about it, then I need to change the job. Happiness is not doing less. It is to do the most that we can do and to love doing that. To maximize contribution. That can only come through loving what you do. I am deliberately using a term which is not often used in a work context, love. That is why work produces stress. People who do not love their work are stressed. People who love their work automatically get a sense of meaning from it and believe it is worthwhile. The more they do, the happier they are. They get stressed not with work, but with not having enough of it.
The strange thing in life is that organizations want people to enjoy work, to give their best, and to maximize effort and productivity. But the messages they give their people are negative. Let me give you an example. Many organizations have a ritual called TGIF: Thank God it is Friday. This is a small party at the end of the workday on Friday where all employees gather and have some eats and some fun together celebrating the fact that, yet another week of work is behind them. I first heard of this custom when it was imported into India with IT companies that set up shop in Bangalore. We Indians are the world’s greatest mindless imitators. Promptly, many Indian companies picked up on this practice and even went to the extent of advertising it as a perk in their recruitment spiels.
A friend of mine who was the promoter of one of the early IT companies in Bangalore that had this TGIF custom invited me to drop in one Friday afternoon to their TGIF.
I asked him what TGIF was and he, with a very superior smile on this face, explained it to me and waited for me to start clapping.
I asked him, “Do you really want people to be saying ‘Thank God it is Friday?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
I said to him, “To me, if someone who works for me says that he is glad the work week is over, it is a danger signal. It means that the work the person is doing is not meaningful or enjoyable and that somehow, they got through it and now that it is over, they are happy to go home for the weekend. If I had to have a party, I would rather have one on Monday morning called TGIM. And I would work extremely hard to create an environment where people would love to come to work.”
“You are a real spoilsport,” said my friend, jokingly. “You know, I never thought of it that way!!”
Take another case. You have a salesperson who is magical. She or he is an inspired salesperson. They can sell the Buckingham Palace to the Queen and many times they do. They work extremely hard and exceed all targets. So, at the end of the year, you give them a reward. You send them on a two week, all expenses paid vacation to the Bahamas. Most organizations do the equivalent of this. Now let us analyze what you have done.
You have achieved two things: Firstly, you were successful in getting your best salesperson off the street for two weeks and that will show up in your first quarter results. Secondly and even more importantly you gave a strong subconscious message, that you believe that work is essentially unpleasant. But since this person managed to hang in there and do it well for twelve months, you are now paying for them to do what they really want to do and enjoy doing; roasting on the beach in the Bahamas.
Consider the alternative. Passionate people who love what they do, enjoy every minute of it, find it fulfilling and would pay you to do it if they had to. What kind of results do you think you can get if you create workplaces and work that can give this to those who perform it? And before you accuse me of fantasizing, let me give you an example. All missionaries work like this. Many spend their own money and endure a lot of hardship to do the work they do because the rewards of their work are clear to them. The challenge is to create this sense of meaning in work. The need is essential.
Just to close the point I am making here; a working person spends roughly thirty to thirty-five years doing what we call work. If we take a lifespan of seventy years and subtract the years spent in education that is almost seventy percent of a person’s lifespan. To spend this time doing something that does not give fulfillment, satisfaction, and a sense of achievement, but is routine, boring and even unpleasant, is a very stupid way to live your life. Unfortunately, that is how many people do lead their lives. In dead end jobs with no value addition to themselves or to the organizations they work for.
It is essential for one to take stock from time to time to see if they are achieving what they set out to achieve.
Which brings me to the next question: what is a good goal?
A good goal in my view has two essential ingredients:
1. It is big enough to make it worth your while to work for.
2. It is big enough to scare you.
A goal that is not scary will not generate the energy that we need to achieve it. It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort. Nobody rises to low expectations. People rise to high expectations. In my life, whenever I have experienced meaninglessness, low energy, and passivity, it has always been because the work was too easy, and the goal not big enough. My antidote to tiredness, lack of focus and attention and stress in life is to create a big, scary goal. When you are walking in a forest and you come around a bend and see a tiger sitting in the middle of the road, adrenaline pumps into your blood. You are all attention. You turn around and run like hell. You are not bored, inattentive, or tired. Instantly, you have all the energy and focus that you need, and you passionately try to get away from the tiger. For all you know, the tiger is probably still sitting where he was, having a good laugh at your expense. But you are not waiting to find out. That is the key. Create the tigers that will make you run.
It’s true that tigers are also cats. But the resemblance ends there.