• Mike Donoghue

A Stoic Guide to Excellence


"We are what we repeatedly do, excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Aristotle 340BC.

Did Aristotle actually say those words? It would be amazing to think that he did and that since circa 340BC the words haven’t changed and this phrase has remained. It is more likely that author, Will Durant, attributed the spirit of Aristotle’s thinking to Aristotle in his 1926 book “The Story of Philosophy”.


To take the spirit of Aristotle’s thinking along this line and bring it to present day business operations, standardizing operations by determining processes and procedures is a point on the journey; however it seems that it is only that, a point on the journey. How many companies can actually say that their core processes have delivered excellence in their operations? I have witnessed so many companies who have similar processes and Enterprise Resource Planning systems that deliver near identical processes. So what makes one company more successful than another?


A point on the journey might be a scenario that goes something like this:


A company's Senior Management determine a lack of formal core processes and procedures is a risk to their operations, so a team of people are brought together to determine what are the critical systems, tools, processes, procedures, checks and balances for the company. They are then tasked with developing/buying solutions for those systems and then implementing them.


The impacted teams and personnel adopt the processes, procedures, and tools. Some of the team may see a benefit and adopt these changes willingly, others may see an erosion of their autonomy or a weakening of their perceived position in the company and are dissatisfied with the new way of doing things. The project is declared "complete", and the company moves on in its chosen direction.


Did the project really achieve its objectives or has it anchored and sustained mediocrity perhaps a few points above its pre-project aims?


One reason may be that, while systems, tools, processes, and procedures play a key part in standardizing and driving excellence into the company’s day to day operations. The area that is shown to be the unspeakable elephant in the room and one that dooms a large majority of operational change, irrespective of the technology or genius of the system or process; is the management team’s, leadership commitment and its ability to coach each member of their team, building strong open honest relationships to achieve the desired outcomes.


Aristotle believed that to become an effective leader, we must first be a follower, to intimately understand the needs and wants of the group. Even after we become a leader, we still need to follow - including the concerns, the plight, and the progress of those we serve. Net: every good leader is a good follower.


Through discussing changes that need to be made, setting operational context and seeking input from every team member, even the “CAVE” (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) people, only then can a leader truly understand what it will take to achieve the foundations of excellence. Capturing the thoughts, ideas, and “aha” moments, and encapsulating the essence of the business operations processes and procedures, will form and encourage the necessary habits to achieve a level of excellence they crave. Forcing disengaged employees to adopt systems that they believe won’t work, leads to stress, further disengagement and a loss of any value that may have been derived from the project.


Continuing this theme post-implementation, it is about taking time each week to check in on the mindset of their teams and responding to doubts, issues and obstacles in a progressive manner and getting to the crux of what excellence really is – engaged people who feel valued, heard and supported, consistently delivering an outstanding product and/or service to their customers.


At Helios we have a phrase that is similar to “We are what we repeatedly do…” it’s “How you do one thing is how you do everything." We've learned that building good habits in our teams and individually requires space, time, and reflection. It also requires the support of our colleagues to be available and willing to challenge each of us to behave as leaders.


I mention reflection; it is a critical part of a leaders toolkit. To be successful at reflection you need a true mirror and in this context that mirror is everyone that you interact with on a daily basis; so take the time to find people who will challenge you to lead and develop the habits required to be a good leader. Recognize that demanding excellence and putting systems and processes in place isn't enough, putting a process or system in place is only an act, the habit comes from you and your team - help them develop good habits.

A final thought in the words of Epictetus (though he may not have said it exactly this way), "If we want to be happy, if we want to be successful, if we want to be great, we have to develop the capability, we have to develop the day-to-day habits that allow this to ensue".


Have you developed the capability to lead your teams to excellence? Want to chat more about this concept? Reach out, a call doesn't cost a thing.

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