August 2017 Cover Stories Features On The Cover Special Section

Organizational Excellence Begins With Your Mindset

Written By: Jim Lilkendey, Principal, Apogee Coaching

Until we’re all replaced by robots and artificial intelligence, defining, achieving and sustaining excellence still comes down to people.

Of course, there are no shortage of frameworks (Baldridge, 7S, etc.), methodologies (Agile, Six Sigma, etc.) and technologies to support us. While these can help to structure and carry out organizational improvement efforts, they won’t get us there without the right mindset.

Our mindset is our unique collection of beliefs, attitudes and habitual thinking. It influences what we do and, ultimately, the results we get. So, whether we’re trying to improve client interactions, production runs or sales processes, high quality results demand the cultivation of a mindset supportive of excellence. But, what does such a mindset look like?

In my experience, it includes three foundational components, each a mindset of their own:
1. Engagement – I am absorbed by and committed to my work.
2. Growth – I see myself and others as capable of learning and growing.
3. Continuous Improvement – I consistently look for ways to improve myself, my team and
my organization.

1) Engagement
As Doug Conant once said, “To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.” Reaching a level of excellence requires motivation, focus and commitment. It means engaging fully and giving our best effort to our work. Unfortunately, Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report suggests that only 33 percent of U.S. employees are engaged at work, compared to 70 percent at the world’s best organizations. So, what can we do about this disengagement epidemic?

Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” plumbs academic research and management theory to conclude that unless our work involves repeatedly doing the same thing in the same way traditional extrinsic motivation is ineffective. It turns out that when our work requires creativity and problem solving, as most work today does, we are motivated by:

Autonomy – a sense of control over our work
Mastery – the opportunity to get better at what we do
Purpose – something bigger than ourselves to work toward

My advice to organizational leaders: foster a culture of engagement by creating an environment that supports and encourages autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose among your team members. My advice for employees: take ownership of your career, invest in yourself and seek out the meaning in your work. The alternative is spending 40 percent or more of your waking life disengaged and less impactful.

2) Growth
You’re in a meeting and someone on your team says, “I’d never be good at customer service” or “Steve just can’t see the big picture!” If you’ve read Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” you might suspect that they’re operating under a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset sees basic abilities and talents as fixed traits — “I simply don’t have any discipline,” or “my brother got all the athletic talent in our family.” Such a mindset can be limiting, dissuading us from new challenges and from realizing potential.

Dweck contrasts this with a growth mindset which presumes we can develop talents and abilities through effort. This mindset might be evident in comments like “Sarah has never managed a campaign, but we’ll get her training.” or “That wasn’t my best presentation, but I’ll do better next time.” The growth mindset sees calculated risks are a natural part of the learning process, and failure as temporary setback, not something that defines us.

It’s important to keep in mind that we all operate with a mix of these two mindsets. I might think “While I’ve never done business development, I’d like to learn” (growth mindset), and still see myself as someone who “could never be a software developer” (fixed mindset). Of course, there are things we can’t realistically change, but when the potential to improve does exist a growth mindset opens the door to realizing that potential. Luckily, we can broaden and strengthen our growth mindset. Research bears this out, and in my work, I regularly support clients to recognize and revise self-limiting beliefs, attitudes
and thoughts.

3) Continuous Improvement
Being fully engaged in our work and believing in our capacity for growth are necessary but not sufficient for excellence. We’re not perfect. Our capabilities change. Our understanding changes. Market needs and desires change. We must adapt – individually and organizationally. Excellence necessitates a mindset of continuous improvement.

If you’ve been exposed to lean thinking, popularized through the Toyota Production System, you may be familiar with the Japanese term kaizen, which is simply translated as improvement. But, in Toyota’s manufacturing context and now throughout the business world, kaizen has come to mean something akin to a continual spirit of change for the better.

Major change initiatives and large-scale innovation can be part of such a spirit, but kaizen is more often associated with a perpetual commitment to incremental improvements in quality. In this case, desired results guide our efforts, but are not the focus. Rather, we direct our efforts to continuously improving ourselves, our processes, and our systems — the engines delivering these results.”

We don’t necessarily need to see ourselves as innovators or change agents. We just need to be able to look objectively at our daily work and ask, “How can we improve the quality of what we are doing, just a bit?” A bit quicker, a bit less wasteful, a bit more valuable to our customers? This is something we can all do, all the time. Such improvements are less likely to trigger resistance in ourselves or in others, and if we do them frequently enough they become a habit. Never discount the power of small changes. A daily improvement of 1 percent yields 100 percent improvement in 70 days.

Organizational excellence is an ongoing journey, not a destination. That journey begins and is sustained by applying the mindsets of engagement, growth and continuous improvement, to ourselves, our interactions and everything we create. How will you apply these mindsets in your pursuit of excellence?

Organizational leaders need to foster a culture of engagement by creating an environment that supports and encourages autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose among your team members.


JIM LILKENDEY is an executive coach, management consultant and founder of Apogee Coaching, a practice dedicated to leadership, team and organizational growth and transformation. Jim’s clients range, from startups to non-profits to multi-national corporations, all with a shared desire to sustain and enhance the impact and effectiveness of their leadership, teams and cultures.

Leave a Comment