E is for Building An Excellence Culture Rather Than An Excuse Culture

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When have you encountered an excellence culture, rather than an excuse culture?

You may have visited a sports team, hospital, company or other organisation where people continually delivered high standards. What did people do to make this happen?

Several years ago I encountered two extreme cultures during the course of a week.

The first culture exuded excellence. The pathway to the building was clean and attractive. Walking into the reception area, there was a sign over the desk that said:

“Our company’s goal is simple. It is to help our customers to achieve success.”

The reception people had been told I was arriving and already had a badge prepared. They provided coffee, fruit and wifi for visitors in the reception area where customer success stories were displayed on the walls.

Watching the employees arrive, they appeared friendly and wanting to get to work. The whole environment buzzed with a sense of energy and purpose. People took responsibility for maintaining the high standards.

The Chief Executive came to collect me, rather than sending somebody else. Building on my comments about the reception area, she explained that the company wanted the visitors to go away saying:

“That is the best reception area I have ever visited. It exemplified what the company aims to do each day. I wish my company’s reception area could be like that.”

The second company I visited was much less inspiring. The grounds outside the main entrance were littered with cigarette butts, chewing gum and empty cans in the hedges.

The reception area was grubby and staffed by uninterested people from a security company. The meeting rooms were dark, had faulty window blinds and had packages stacked in the corners.

The company was grey. There were few signs of energy or love for the work. People failed to take responsibility for improving the standards. I left wondering how people got through each day.

Looking at your own experience, what do you think are the characteristics of an excellence culture? What are the values that people believe in? How do people translate these values into action? How do they actually behave?

Looking at the other extreme, what do you think are the characteristics of an excuse culture? How do people behave in such a culture? What happens as a result?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific ways that people behave in excellence cultures. 

Describe the specific ways that people behave in excuse cultures.

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Imagine that you want to lead an organisation that builds an excellence culture. Let’s explore some of the ways to make this happen.

You can describe the purpose
and the principles people are
expected to follow to deliver success

The first company mentioned above kept communicating the required professional standards. People who applied to work there were given the following messages.

The Purpose

The purpose of our company is simple. It is to help our customers, colleagues and company to succeed.

The Principles. The principles we aim to
follow to achieve these aims are these.

1) To help our customers to succeed 

The ways we aim to do this are by … 

2) To help our colleagues to succeed 

The ways we aim to do this are by …

3) To help our company to succeed. 

The ways we aim to do this are by …

The Practice

Here are some examples of how we
have translated these aims into action.




We would like you take time to reflect and decide if you would like to contribute towards achieving the organisation’s goals.

People could then decide if they wanted to apply to the company and deliver the standards required to achieve excellence.

You can keep sharing how
people deliver success

Good organisations keep showing people what good looks like. They also reward the behaviour they want repeated.

There are many ways to make this happen. One approach is to keep sharing success stories. Here is one format for such stories.

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You can follow the ethic of never
walking past a quality problem

Good leaders reward the behaviour they want repeated. They also never walk past a quality problem, otherwise they have said it is okay.

A Managing Director taught me about this when I was due to meet him. Sitting in the reception area of his company’s offices, I saw him park his car and begin walking toward the main entrance.

Suddenly he dived into the hedge and emerged with an empty drinks can. It was 7.30 in the morning and the can had obviously been thrown from the nearby main street during the night.

“I refuse to walk past a quality problem,” explained the MD.

“If we don’t keep our hedges and car parks clean, visitors will think we don’t pay attention to our products.”

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This approach also applies to dealing with people displaying poor professional standards. Here is one example.

Imagine the scene. It is 9.30 on a Monday morning and one team member arrives 30 minutes late for a 9.00 meeting at the office.

“What a terrible day,” he announces to the rest of the staff.

“The trains are late, the traffic is terrible and later I am due to meet the client from hell. What a way to begin a Monday.”

What to do about such an entrance? You can ignore the person, confront them or adopt some other approach.

I witnessed such an incident when the leader asked the team member who arrived late to leave the room. He said:

“I wonder if you can replay that situation. Everybody has found it hard to get into work today, but we want to get on with the job.

“I would like you to go out, then come in again. This time, think about the impression you are giving to people in the office.

“I don’t want you to come in with a forced smile, but I do want you to think about the tone you are setting on a Monday morning.

“Right, do you want to try it? It’s up to you.”

That approach sounds heavy, but it actually worked. The team member smiled wryly, accepted the message and said ‘Sorry’.

They left the room and came in again 30 seconds later with a totally different attitude. The leader was not looking for clones, far from it, but he did want people who behaved professionally.

You will have your own way of never walking past a quality problem. This can be relatively easy when it applies to physical products or customer service. But it can be harder regarding human behaviour.

People must get the message that certain actions are encouraged, however, whilst others are unacceptable. Corporate misdemeanours can often be traced back to ignoring people who behaved badly.

Good organisations encourage the people who take responsibility and deliver the required professional standards. They do not dilute their principles for those who do not want to fulfil the agreed contracts. It is about maintaining standards.

Imagine that you aim to build an excellence culture. You may wish to do this in a school, sports team, organisation or wherever. How can you do your best to make this happen?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific situation in which you would like to build an excellence culture. 

Describe the specific things you can do to build such a culture.

Describe the specific benefits of building an excellence culture.

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