In an earlier video of Conviviali ON AIR, I talk about how the first and most important part of building a great community is to be excellent (or “superfun”). It reminds me of a time, nearly 20 years ago, when my mother and I were eating at an excellent restaurant – Nana’s – in Durham North Carolina. We had the special, which was poached lobster in a light-cream curry broth. It was heavenly. Seriously. I remember this dish from 20 years ago, it was that good.
I had worked in the kitchen (wood-fired pizza maven, yo) of Nana’s sister restaurant, and knew a lot of the wait and kitchen staff, so was getting something of VIP treatment. The chef/owner, Scotty, came out to talk with us, we were raving about how wonderful the lobster was, and asked, “could you tell us how to make this?” and he said, “Sure! First, you make your beurre blanc…” My mother and I exchanged glances. Neither of us knew how to make beurre blanc, and I, at least, was too embarrassed to ask (I had worked in his kitchen, after all). So we listened to his very kind and involved description of how to make this heavenly dish, but – honestly, it went over our heads because we didn’t understand the first step. And now, to my everlasting regret – I am not able to make my own version of this dish. I’m a good cook. Sometimes, great. I can’t make poached lobster in light-cream curry sauce.
And to this day, “first, you make your beurre blanc…” is shorthand in my family for “I don’t know what you think I know!”
So when I say, “First – you gotta be excellent,” I’d like to take a few words to explore what I mean when I say, “be excellent.”
Excellence is one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” things. In the interest of being transparent, here is an [incomplete!] list of things I think are excellent: The Matisse Cutout Exhibit, Slate’s Culture Gabfest, Punchdrunk, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dear Sugar, Andy Goldsworthy, Season 5 of Supernatural, Marie Forleo (.com), Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, On Being with Krista Tippet, Nikki (and now Carly’s) Zumba class at Town Lake YMCA, The Handmaid’s Tale…the list could go on and on…there are so many things that I think are excellent.
A Side Note:
Pretty much all excellent things are great. Not all great things are excellent.
For me, excellence isn’t so much a value judgment as a recognition that these people and organizations are taking particular, formalized actions that make them consistently stand out from the crowd in a way that is both sustainable and exciting.
There are some projects / institutions / places I think are “great,” but not “excellent” – that is, I admire the work, I respect the leadership, I love what they’re doing – but there’s a formal element missing that makes me worry about their ability to sustain success for the long term. “Accidentally awesome” might be too strong, and doesn’t exactly describe what I’m talking about, but it’s heading in the right direction, very quickly.
When I help my clients “be excellent,” I’m not necessarily helping them get “better.” I’m helping them develop an internal organizational framework that supports authenticity and sustainable growth which leads to higher quality work, and translates into improved engagement and reach.
OMG – I know authenticity is an overused term, and I’m not supposed to talk about it because it’s very 2013, but IT’S REALITY, PEOPLE. The formal definition of authenticity in the archives world (where I come from) is that an object is what it purports to be. So, if you’ve got something that claims to be a letter from the pope, it’s authentic if it has XY and Z characteristics that support that claim. Translating that to something useful for us here: An authentic organization is what it claims to be. Does what it says it’s going to do. Behaves in a way that is consistent with its values. So: Breaking it down, taking it to the bridge…
An Authentic Organization is Purposeful:
Excellent organizations “claim to be” for something. Having a clear purpose and vision helps everybody – from the top down to the most entry-level people – to intimately know, buy-into, personify, and be able to meaningfully advocate the organizational purpose and vision.
An Authentic Organization Strives for Consistency
Once an organization “claims to be” for or about something, every single thing the organization does – internally and externally – should feed into that mission. If, for example, your company claims to empower regular people to make extra money by renting out their home – then policies, company culture, communication strategies, and messaging should all contribute to that mission. If your organization’s mission is to make art accessible and relevant for the people of your city, then your programming, services, collection development policies, and outreach strategies should reflect that mission.
Caveat: we’re all human. Sometimes we say one thing and – with the best of intentions – do exactly the opposite. Humans are not perfectly consistent animals. But when we make a mistake, especially in the context of business, it’s important to be able to hear the criticism, own up to the blunder, figure out where and how we went wrong, and then try our best to address that inconsistency, either through tweaking the mission or tweaking the process that led to the problem.
2) Commitment to Growth
You might be thinking, “Who wouldn’t want to grow? Of course I’m committed to growth.” You’re right, as business people, we want our business to grow. If we’re in a for-profit business, we want more customers; we want to sell more products. If we’re running a for-purpose organization, we want to have a greater impact; we want to raise more funds, and expand our revenue streams. Right, gotcha. But a commitment to growth also implies “existential growth.” For me that means a radical embrace of change.
In my experience talking to successful (and less successful) business owners, I’ve noticed a running theme: Genuinely successful organizations are open to, and even seek out opportunities to change. When the time is right, they say “yes” to new situations, with the understanding that the future is uncertain, the outcome is not a given, and that experimentation and “failure” need to be built into the organizational structure. It’s not enough to “embrace failure,” unless you’ve got a framework in place to learn from the failures and institute new experiments to take advantage of your newfound knowledge.
How To Be Excellent? Questions to Ask Yourself:
- What is your organization’s mission?
- What purpose does your organization serve?
- In terms of your mission: Could you describe what ‘success’ looks like? What does ‘failure’ look like?
- What about that mission is important to you (as an individual)?
- Can you describe how your sales process / marketing / advertising / messaging reflects your organizational mission? What processes are in place to ensure that your organization presents a unified front to the public?
- What are some risks your organization has taken over the last year?
- How did taking those risks help you better serve your mission?
- Did you understand what was “risky” about those risks?
- What did you learn about the market / your organizational / process management that you can use when you take risks again?
- How does your organization record the experiment, methodology, outcomes, and reflections?
And Beurre Blanc? It’s a mixture of shallots, white wine, vinegar, butter (lots and lots of butter), and sometimes cream. Not exactly easy-peasy, but worth the effort…
Do you want to nurture a culture of excellence in your organization? Need some guidance to get started? Contact Me for next steps and to set up a free consultation.