Years ago (and in seemingly another career lifetime), the organization I led was subject to periodic quality audits by our clients. A team of client representatives would invade our space, require documents, observe processes, interview staff, and measure things we didn’t always know were being measured. One of the auditors’ objectives was to uncover any quality breaches that would trigger contracted financial penalties. Even when we felt well prepared, these events produced a high degree of tension. Most of the auditors lacked any sense of humor whatsoever. We tried.
On one particular occasion, one of the auditors allowed a bit of personal interaction. When I asked how he landed in this specific occupation he replied,
“When I was a college student I landed a summer groundskeeping job at a world-renowned golf course. This course was known for its creative re-design to keep it fresh as well as its precise attention to detail. I will never forget the perpetual policy emphasis:
“NOBODY walks past a weed. Anyone, from executives to student employees were subject to discipline if they walked across the property and did not pull a visible weed. I learned a lot about the costs and the benefits of excellence that are important to me today.”
Business leadership lessons learned:
Leaders must lead visibly.
In other words, a business leader’s “video must match their audio.” To establish a culture of excellence, leaders must recognize that their teams pay much more attention to their behavior than to their words. Any discrepancy between them opens the door for cynicism, loss of trust and diminished quality. “Culture eats policy for lunch.”
External feedback is crucial.
If you don’t access external feedback, you start to believe your own press. We tend to be so close to that which we lead that it is easy to lose perspective and miss both opportunities and threats. Teams that repeat the same internal stories (echo silos) and automatically apply time-worn procedures (blind spots) need a fresh look. Audits can be painful but they make us better. Leaders who are transparent with trusted external peers or executive coaches can continue to learn and grow.
Creativity and attention to detail are not mutually exclusive.
Healthy organizations embrace the tension between new ideas and meticulous adherence to metrics. Creativity minus detail leads to sloppiness and perceived incompetence. Excessive attention to detail minus creativity leads to extinction as the world changes. Both are necessary for excellence.
Sometimes picking weeds is therapeutic.
Leaders must be able to tolerate ambiguity without either making reflexive decisions or falling prey to paralysis by analysis. During times when answers are unclear and there is no obvious direct correlation between effort and outcome, it can be helpful for leaders to take a deep breath, walk across the fairway so to speak, and do something concrete like pulling a weed. Then use that momentum to re-look at the problem.
One of the best ways to reduce weeds is to grow healthy, thick grass.
Yes, there are weeds. Sometimes the weeds are people. Deal with them. But remember to focus upon and reinforce that which is healthy and growing. Some team members will never be creative. Some will never get excited about spreadsheets. Find ways for the whole of your team to maximize strengths and provide bench strength to cover for individual weaknesses.
The teams you lead will respond when offered opportunities to operate within their sweet spots. You’ll pass the audits. Gulp at what you continue to learn. And you’ll get better at important work.