Aiming for excellence

There’s no way up from the moral high-ground…

I’m often asked whether there’s much similarity between the work I do with businesses and that which I do with non-profits. My answer is that it often starts different but ends up very similar.

That’s because usually, my work involves two things: helping people think bigger, so they can set more ambitious goals for themselves and their organisations; and then helping them to work out how on earth they can achieve them.

The former is invariably unique to every organisation, and as you’d expect there are often big differences between the ambitions of businesses and charities. But for the latter, the “how can we get there”, there are huge commonalities.

To achieve genuinely ambitious goals requires more than just passion, hard work and good intentions. It requires focus and discipline. It requires talent, skills, and organisation. It requires excellence in specific areas, and at least a minimum level of professionalism in others.

This is the same for any ambitious organisation, in any country, sphere, or sector, whether they be business or charity.

The emergence of more ambitious post-pandemic strategies is something I’ve written about in recent articles, and I suspect is the reason why this topic is becoming a common theme in my conversations with leaders in the sector. There is an increasing recognition that performance, professionalism, and the drive for excellence, is patchy at best within their organisations.

I generally share with them my top five focus areas for improving their performance:

  • Setting up a clear goal, achievable targets and efficient processes that enable people to spend their time and effort on the fewest things that matter most.
  • Having leaders throughout the organisation who will take the big decisions, while supporting and engaging their team to take the smaller ones themselves.
  • Having the excellence around key disciplines, like innovation, collaboration, sales, marketing and negotiation; as well as basic levels of professionalism across the management basics: projects, people, budgets, meetings, KPIs and contracts.
  • Developing not merely convivial, but genuinely influential relationships with the outside world, with customers, partners, funders, policymakers and so forth.
  • And finally, ensuring that everyone knows what ‘excellent’ looks like in their role, and has the tools, support, and freedom to achieve it.

Again, these are largely common across organisations of all flavours and sectors. But there can be one last difference between businesses and some charities: how people respond to this challenge.

This difference was first shared with me in one of the breakfast seminars I hosted for charity CEOs, back when I was fairly fresh out of corporate life and consulting, and relatively green to the non-profit world.

I asked the group what challenges they faced in improving performance, and one of the most experienced of all those present, said this: “It feels like there’s a moral offset sometimes in our sector; because we know we’re doing something inherently good we seem to think it’s less important that we do it as well it can be done. It’s as if we think that ‘doing things well’ matters less than in other sectors.”

As the room fell quiet, she finished with this thought: “How can we get our people to put as much passion into improving the way we work as we put into championing our cause?”

This weakness, this occasional propensity we sometimes see, for looking down on the basics of business, on the mainstays of professional management from the moral high ground of an ethical organisation isn’t unique to charities. Nor, thankfully, is it ubiquitous across the sector.

But it is a problem, because the moral high ground is an isolated peak. There is no path upwards from there to excellence. And without aiming for excellence, those bold ambitions will forever remain unfulfilled.

So, my challenge for you is this. To paraphrase my learned guest, how can you get your people to put as much passion into their pursuit of excellence, as they put into championing their cause?

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