The Art of Strengths Coaching

S is for Satisfying Work, Standards And Success

There are many models for doing fine work. One approach is to do satisfying work and maintain the standards required to achieve success.

This is an approach used by coaches who help people to perform well in sports, music, theatre, business and other fields. They encourage people to focus on maintaining highs standards of performance rather than worrying about the things they can’t control.

Imagine that you are helping a talented person who wants to improve their performance. Sometimes they perform well, but on other occasions they fall short. They want to do great work on a regular basis, however, rather than just on a random basis.

The person must be prepared to work hard, of course, rather than simply rely on their talent. They need to demonstrate the will before they can learn the skill. Building on this base, one approach is to go through the following steps.

You can aim: 

To clarify the person’s long-term picture of success.

To clarify the principles they can follow to give themselves the greatest chance of achieving their long-term picture of success.

To clarify when they have followed some of these principles in the past and how they can follow these principles in the future – plus add other skills – to achieve their picture of success. 

To pass on knowledge and practical tools they can use to achieve their picture of success.

To enable the person to follow their chosen principles and maintain the standards required to achieve their long-term picture of success. 

Looking back at your life, when have done satisfying work and maintained the standards required to deliver success? This could have been a situation in your personal or professional life.

You may have taken these steps when playing a sport, singing in a choir or practising your craft. You may have done it when leading a team, managing a crisis, solving a technical problem or doing some other activity.

Looking back, how did you clarify the desired picture of success? How did you clarify the required standards of performance? How did you maintain these standards? How did you do your best to achieve the picture of success?

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

Describe a specific situation in the past when you did satisfying work and maintained the standards required to achieve success.

Describe the specific things you did to follow these steps. 

Describe the specific things that happened as a result.

There are many models for encouraging people to maintain high standards. One of these can be found in the work of Bill Walsh. He was a legendary coach for the San Francisco 49ers, the American Football team.

Bill believed it was vital for everybody in an organisation to deliver a certain Standard of Performance. This was more important than striving for winning. He believed that, providing people consistently delivered the Standard of Performance, the score took care of itself.

Did it work? Despite not focusing on winning, his team was hailed as a dynasty. It took two seasons – 1979 and 1980 – to turnaround the ailing team. The 49ers then won the Super Bowl three times – in 1981, 1984 and 1988 – before Bill retired. Let’s explore some of his ideas.

Taking over the San Francisco 49ers

Bill took over the team in 1979. Interviewed for the book The Score Takes Care of Itself, by Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh, he said that his aim was to create an environment of excellence.

The first two years were difficult. He aimed to build a top-notch organisation rather than one that was toxic. This called for hiring great people and moving on those who chose not to meet the required standards. Bill explained:

I came to the San Francisco 49ers with an overriding priority and specific goal – to implement what I call the Standard of Performance.

It was a way of doing things, a leadership philosophy that has as much to do with core values, principles, and ideals as with blocking, tackling, and passing: more to do with the mental than with the physical.

While I prized preparation, planning, precision, and poise, I also knew that organizational ethics were crucial to ultimate ongoing success.

It began with this fundamental leadership assertion: Regardless of your specific job, it is vital to our team that you do that job at the highest possible level in all its various aspects, both mental and physical (i.e., good talent with bad attitude equals bad talent).

There are also the basic characteristics of attitude and action – the new organizational ethos – I tried to teach our team, to put into our DNA.

Of course, for this to happen the person in charge – whether the head coach, CEO, manager, or assembly line foreman – must exhibit the principles.

This called for commitment to details, such as people having a positive attitude, no shirttails out when wearing the 49ers uniform, being prompt, showing good sportsmanship. No strutting, posturing or cheap shots, controlling of profanity, treating fans with respect and always exhibiting professional behaviour.

The leader’s role is to create a culture
in which people continually focus on
the strategy and standard of performance

Bill believed that leaders must develop the right strategy for delivering success. This included developing the right planning for tackling various scenarios.

People could then follow the strategy, do superb work and achieve success. He explained this in the following way.

The motto of the Boy Scouts, ‘Be prepared,’ became my modus operandi, and to be prepared I had to factor in every contingency: good weather, bad weather, and everything in between.  

I kept asking and answering this question: ‘What do I do if…?’

You must envision the future deeply and in detail – creatively – so that the unforeseeable becomes foreseeable. Then you write the script for the foreseeable. 

Of course, there’s always something you can’t anticipate, but you strive to greatly reduce the number of those foreseeables.

Bill followed the 80/20 rule. The 49ers focused on maximising the 80% they could control in a game. There may be 20% they couldn’t control, such as a referee’s call, a bad bounce or fortune.

The team aimed to prepare and perform properly, however, because this vastly increased the chances of success. People could then follow the strategy by delivering the Standard of Performance.

People were expected to practice relentlessly until their execution at the highest level was automatic. Bill called this routine perfection and described it in the following way.

Maintenance workers, ticket takers, parking lot attendants, and anyone receiving a pay check with the emblem of the San Francisco 49ers on it were instructed as to the requirements of their own job’s Standard of Performance and expected to measure up. 

Bill saw himself as a teacher. He believed in encouraging and enabling motivated people to consistently deliver the basics. They could then add the brilliance. Some people chose not to meet these standards, so they were moved on.

Looking back at his time at the 49ers, Bill said that the turnaround did not come straight away. Despite setbacks on the journey, however, people began to deliver the required standards. He explained this in the following way.

Eventually – within months, in fact – a high level of professionalism began to emerge within our entire organization. 

I moved forward methodically with a deep belief that the many elements of my Standard of Performance would produce that kind of mindset, an organizational culture that would subsequently be the foundation for winning games.

The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on the way to the victory stand.  

Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners 

Keep focusing on the standard of
performance – especially during times of stress

The 49ers became known for winning games in the last few minutes. Why? Bill explained this to Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh in the following way.

Have you noticed that great players and great companies don’t suddenly start hunching up, grimacing, and trying to ‘hit the ball harder’ at a critical point?

Rather, they are in a mode, a zone in which they’re performing and depending on their ‘game,’ which they’ve mastered over many months and years of intelligently directed hard work.

By focusing strictly on my Standard of Performance, the 49ers were able to play the bigger games very well because it was basically business as usual – no ‘try harder’ mentality was used. 

In fact, I believed it was counter-productive. Consequently, the San Francisco 49ers could function under tremendous stress and the forces that work on individuals in competitive situations.

Bill was true to his philosophy and principles. The key was to ensure that people delivered the Standard of Performance. The score would then take care of itself.

Great organisations often take a similar approach. They continually explain the organisation’s purpose, principles and picture of success.

They explain that these principles are based on what is required to achieve the mission rather than being plucked out of the air. They bring these to life by giving examples of how people have followed the principles in their daily work.

Here is an example of the Professional Standards that were described by one organisation. Potential employees were given illustrations of how these worked in practise. They were then invited to decide if they wanted to join the organisation.

Great workers often focus on maintaining their standards during potentially stressful situations. They concentrate on what they can control. They refuse to worry about the things they can’t control – such as their opponents, the officials or the eventual outcome.

Such workers find that taking this approach releases them to do their best. Sometimes they will achieve the desired aim, but other times this may be beyond their control. They continue to maintain the standards, however, because this increases the chances of achieving success.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking ahead, can you think of a situation when you may want to do satisfying work and take this approach?

You may want to maintain high standards when running a coaching session, counselling a person or teaching a course. You may wish to do so when renovating a house, designing a website, leading a team, managing a crisis or doing a creative project.

Imagine you have chosen to focus on a specific activity. What are the real results you want to achieve? What are the standards you will need to achieve? How can you maintain these standards? What else can you do to increase the chances of success?

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

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to do satisfying work and maintain the standards required to achieve success.

Describe the specific things you can do to take these steps. 

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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