Chicago Bulls

The Importance of Standards

At a recent Christmas party I found myself engaged in a stimulating conversation with a group of friends and their spouses which included a manager from UPS. Somehow we got on the topic of customer service and Safeway came up.

We all talked about how Safeway’s management team has done an excellent job of creating a customer oriented culture in our neighborhood stores – a noted difference from several years ago. I then remarked how several other Safeway stores, particularly those in economically oppressed areas, are still catching-up.

The UPS manager then said that those stores should not be held to the same standards as the stores in “good” neighborhoods because they can’t attract the same quality of employees.

Interesting.

I’m sure that many managers share his point of view. I’m also certain that those same managers make the mistake of placing too much stock in the raw talent of their employees, and not enough emphasis on standards. Standards are defined as: something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example; a criterion or something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality.

I shared my perspective with the UPS manager that a company’s or organization’s standards are set by its president, CEO, or manager. These standards which are thoughtfully conceived and assiduously applied, result in quality work, which creates quality employees.

But many executives and managers are enamored by “The Talent Myth,” which according to author and sociologist, Malcolm Gladwell, is the widely-held belief which assumes that people make organizations smart, when more often than not, it’s the other way around. “The Talent Myth” is predicated on the perception that the more stars you have, the greater your company or organization will perform. Those who have faith in this myth are likely to have “the talent mind-set”: the deep-seated belief that having better talent at all levels is how you outperform your competitors.

Simply put, this is a fallacy.

Every year in sports, no matter what sport you are into, there is bound to be a team full of (highly paid) stars who fail to deliver on expectations that are based upon their individual and collective talents. It happened to the 2008 Dallas Cowboys. A team loaded with talent in every position, but in the end were undermined by the lack of standards set by their coach. The lesson taken from their futile season is one that my new UPS manager friend, and proponents of “The Talent Myth” should take heed to: standards influence performance more than talent.

If you are thinking that a sure-fire formula for excellence is to hire the best talent and hold them to the highest standards, that would be a logical inclination. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the 2008 Dallas Cowboys who experienced dissension and a litany of personality conflicts, inner standards are just as important as company standards. Inner standards are what make a person teachable, coachable, and manageable. It enables them to take direction and receive guidance. It also makes the step from good to great possible, if not easier.

Many talented people rely solely upon their talents and fail to develop crucial “intangible” qualities in the process. John C. Maxwell, author of Talent Is Never Enough states that talent – in the absence of intangible qualities such as discipline, character, and integrity – is insignificant. This is where management or coaching comes in. Their job is to get maximum output from the talent(s) that they manage.

Michael Jordan credited his initial rejection from his high school basketball team with being the impetus for his greatness. Because he didn’t make the team (something he thought he could easily do), he worked extra, extra hard to accomplish something he didn’t imagine he would do (become the greatest basketball player of all time). It happened as a result of his own inner standards (practicing long after the team had quit) and complying with the standards set by his coach (who emphasized team play and defense). Michael Jordan, like many employees, had a short but attainable list of requirements to flourish: opportunity and some guidance to reach their full potential. Both of which were made possible with standards and his adherence to them, which ultimately made him accountable as the team leader of the six time champion Chicago Bulls.

The greatest ability any talented employee or player can have is accountability.

Hopefully, the next time my UPS manager friend goes into an impoverished neighborhood and receives unsatisfactory service, he will be able to properly identify that the real problem is not the talent pool, the hiring decisions, or the managers, but the lack of recognition in the importance of establishing standards within the company that the managers should express to employees in both their expectations and policies.

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