You may have heard of the Lake Wobegon effect. That’s a concept of performance based on the tagline at the end of host Garrison Keillor’s monologue on his weekly radio show in which he describes the mythical town of Lake Wobegon as a place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
It’s a town where excellence is the norm. You’d think it’s the kind of performance that most companies seek. In fact, it’s one of the things they seek least often, because most companies are committed to the average—they manage to the bell curve. That is often illustrated in performance reviews.
The purpose of most personnel reviews is to yield a rating that distributes performance along a normal probability curve so that raises can be equitably fit within admittedly limited resources.
It’s hard to fault employers for this, as they are sandwiched between employee expectations and financial reality. But these systems neither reward performance, nor encourage significant improvement. They simply maintain the bell curve.
Most companies with formal reviews processes use some kind of rating system, whether 1 to 5, or O (Outstanding), V,G, etc. These scales are really more compact because companies don't want the non-performers to last long enough to be reviewed and they don’t want many walk-on-water stars either. That squeezes everybody into the middle, whether low-middle, middle-middle, or high-middle. Workers realize they have little chance of meeting top ratings, no matter what they do, and they’ve survived long enough to prove they aren’t in the left foot of the curve. In essence, the company trains them to be slightly below-average to slightly-above average achievers.
But what if an organization could manage to excellence? What if the curve could be moved to the right, not simply sliding it to the right, but skewing it so that there are more employees performing at an excellent level?
If a company could stimulate 20 percent of its workforce to perform at the outstanding level, would it be able to hold its staff together? Or would it see them hired away by competitors willing to pay more?
How does a company get to the excellent level? It starts with a commitment to excellence. Most people and most companies aim low, and then are surprised when they hit their target with great frequency.
The search for excellence starts with the behavior of management. I did not learn from what my parents told me—I learned from how they acted and the values they demonstrated though those actions. So it is with leadership.
Excellence also comes from the inextricably-linked understanding of customer needs and how the company works to meet those.
Most important, to have excellence, management must share power. True empowerment is neither empty slogans nor chaos. It is the ability of management to trust in its people and not only letting them, but also encouraging them to find new direction. Management responds to these ideas and guide them as it does any other changing market condition. It also rests on the recognition that management is neither smarter nor dumber than its work force, but simply better positioned to see the interplay of all factors. Everyone owns the corporation.
But alas, there are many barriers to the search. One of which is whether most companies really want excellence.
Imagine the classic scene in that never-to-be made movie, “A Lot of Good People,” in which the CEOs of America face Jack Nicholson on the witness stand and inform him of their desire for excellence.
“Excellence?” he snarls. “You can’t handle excellence.”
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