Hire for Excellence, not Just Experience

Like most of the people on the planet with television access I have been watching the 2012 Summer Olympics and since I live in London I have been fortunate to also attend live in the new Olympic park.  To say I am impressed with the level of commitment, desire, teamwork, support and guts by almost all of the athletes would be an understatement.  No matter who you are rooting for, it’s hard not to be proud of these athletes.  While the big focus is, thanks to the ratings-hungry media, on who wins the gold medal and how many, the real praise should go to all those who chose to strive for excellence and perform to the very best of their ability and training.  These are real examples of a mindset of “excellence”.

While many of the participants are young, some very young, there are also the older Olympians, from every nation, who have chosen to continue their quest for excellence, even in the face of the inevitable degradation of age and wear and tear.  Consider the British Olympic rider, Nick Skelton, now aged 55, who in 2000 broke his neck, yet persisted to not only ride again but compete in the Olympics.  Look at Chris Hoy, double gold medal winner in cycling this summer at the age of 36 who trains until he is physically sick in order to build up resistance to lactic acid in his ageing legs.  And of course there is Michael Phelps, the greatest medal winner of all time, who at age 27 was still training hard to compete in the London games.  This is the mindset of excellence; to keep working to excel when others have long since abandoned the hard work and effort.

But I think Steve’s main contribution besides just the pure leadership is his passion for excellence. He’s a perfectionist. Good enough isn’t good enough. And also his creative spirit. You know he really, really wants to do something great.
~Andy Hertzfeld talking about Steve Jobs

So, my question is, why don’t older executives have the same drive and determination of these older Olympians?  Too often I observe senior executives who act like they have “made it”, put in less hours, get fat (many very fat) on the job, and lose their competitive  zeal.  Risks on the job are to be avoided instead of taken head on. The attitude of “we tried that once and it didn’t work then either” keeps many senior executives from taking on big challenges.

I am currently assisting in a business turnaround where the CEO has inherited a set of senior executives who are far too risk averse. Their days of attacking complicated problems with zeal and excitement are, in their mind, long gone.  You can tell when a senior executive has lost the “mindset of excellence” when they focus more attention on the problems than on the goal.  Everything is measured in “how difficult it will be” versus “how great it will be” to win the challenge.

I would like to believe that good coaching on the part of the CEO can help bring back the zeal of the fight, but it’s a two-way street and the executive plays the major part.

 “Do you want to go for it, or just talk about it?”

I learned the lesson of hiring for excellence and not just experience by watching a then young executive and decorated U. S. Marine Corps Cobra helicopter pilot, Ian Walsh, take on the nearly impossible challenge of turning around Lycoming Engines back in 2004 following a major product disaster that nearly decimated the company.  The plant was old, the employees  angry over past management decisions, once loyal customers were abandoning the products and the lawsuits were mounting into the mega-millions due to faulty crank stats.

When the previous “highly experienced” senior executive failed to gain any traction on the situation, Ian Walsh raised his hand for the challenge.  Ian may not have had years of operations or turnaround experience, but he had a “mindset of excellence”.  And he inspired everyone by his focus on meeting the challenges with excellence in all things. In 2010 Lycoming Engines won the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence in North America (considered the Nobel Prize in Operations) and the company is a poster child for modern manufacturing, quality and lean six sigma.

So, next time you are looking to hire someone onto your senior executive team, I strongly suggest you look for a “mindset of excellence” and not just experience.  And here are some clues to look for:  Do they still keep in shape and fit or are they overweight and lethargic?  Do they talk about upcoming opportunities or just about past accomplishments?  Do they inspire you with zeal or just impress you with their resume?  Are they eager and hungry for victory?  Would they accept the hardest job in the company or are they looking for a contract with severance guarantees?

When a mindset of excellence and experience are together in the same package, get ready for Olympic gold!

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress


About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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1 Response to Hire for Excellence, not Just Experience

  1. mimijk says:

    You know these topics are very close to my professional heart and each time you post such thoughtful pieces, I am both energized to respond and frustrated by what I see. I have heard more than my share of senior executives speak of their ‘commitment to excellence’, the intent to ‘hire those with vision and enthusiasm’, to ‘take the organization to the next level’. And in reality, there aren’t many Steve Jobs out there. I think that CEOs and other senior executives do themselves a tremendous disservice by surrounding themselves with people who will agree, follow and implement – rather than entice, engage and stretch. Regardless of their initial good intentions, circumstance, time, success, etc erodes the initial energy. The team primary becomes fiction because there are no roles per se, just a group of people with blurred objectives and a perspective that they are there to serve. The challenge as I see it is to know when you’re heading into the murky depths of ennui, so that you do seek out the truly excellent, hire the attitude over the aptitude and then engage that attitude and develop the aptitude. I’m really soap-boxing here, so I’ll step down now. Great post John – the company you are working with is lucky to have you.


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