Good leaders always bring about transformation. Poor leaders only maintain and preserve long-standing mediocrity.

ExcellenceHarsh words, it might seem. But in this age of sound bites and image control, true and sustainable performance excellence seems to be the exception, not the norm. Many business people appear satisfied with managing the status quo. Many up-and-comers seem to have a sense of entitlement rather than a passion for earning their way.

As the saying goes, only mediocrity can be trusted to be always at its best.

Fortunately, there are some excellent leadership practitioners out there who are willing and able to challenge mediocrity head-on. One of those practitioners is John Spence, author of several well-received business books including Awesomely Simple.

John is a coach and consultant for companies ranging from Microsoft, IBM, GE, and Abbott, to Merrill Lynch, AT&T, and Verizon. He’s also lectured at more than 90 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

To provide a taste of John’s counsel to business people, I asked him several questions on common performance issues.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Some leaders inadvertently “enable mediocrity.” What does that typically look like, what are the implications, and what is the best cure?

John Spence: There are two major ways that leaders enable mediocrity. The first is hiring and retaining mediocre employees either because they are intimidated by people who are more talented than they are or because they fail to invest enough time in searching out better talent so they are held hostage by their mediocre.

The other way leaders enable mediocrity is by not setting clear expectations and standards of performance. Ambiguity breeds mediocrity.

Duncan: A clear “vision” of the desired future is of course important in any change effort. How can a leader breathe life into the organization’s vision so people can genuinely internalize and embrace it?

Spence: I believe there are three ways. The first is for the leader to show true passion and commitment to the vision. If the leader is not clearly engaged and excited, no one else in the organization will be.

The second way is to involve people in helping to shape and craft the vision. When people have a say in the outcome they also have a stake in the outcome.

Lastly, for some companies the leader has the ability to bring people face-to-face with the problem they are solving and the people they are serving to show their team just how important the vision is and how it will impact others in a positive way.

Duncan: You rightfully suggest that leaders should dream big dreams. What advice do you offer for making those dreams clear and actionable?

Spence: I am not a process guy, but I know that if you want repeatable success you must have process. A big dream (vision) becomes a reality when it’s broken down into clear, specific, measurable and binary goals and objectives. People have to know exactly where they are going, what is expected of them, and how success will be measured. The next step is to put all of the key indicators onto a dashboard so that everyone knows precisely where they and they entire company currently stand against the goals. That way, action and results become a continuous focus throughout the organization.

Duncan: A lot of people seem to talk about “alignment” as though it’s the magic elixir of organizational performance. What does “alignment” mean to you, and what are some keys to moving it from buzzword to reality?

Spence: To me, alignment means the entire company is pulling in the same direction and headed for the same goal. There is no turf-guarding or hoarding of resources, no division or departments working at cross-purposes, no political in-fighting. This is accomplished through a well-communicated vision and strategy for growth and the courage to say “NO” to anything that does not add value to the effort to achieve that vision.

Duncan: Good decision-making is one of the ingredients of effective leadership. To the extent possible, good leaders tend to involve others in key decisions. What best practices do you suggest?

Spence: I believe the best tool for making great decisions is to create a list of key questions you ask yourself and the team as you go through the decision-making process. A few questions that should be on that list include:

  • What is the REAL timeframe for this decision?
  • Should I delegate this decision, make it myself or should this be a team decision?
  • If it is a team decision who are the right people to be involved in the decision?
  • Do we have all of the information necessary to make this decision?
  • Are we sure the information is accurate and reliable?
  • Who else will be impacted by this decision?
  • Who will be responsible for implementing this decision?

It truly amazes me how often I have seen leaders make HUGE decisions without asking any of these questions. Another thing I look at in decision-making is probability and impact: what is the probability that something could go wrong and what would be the impact if it did?

  • Low probability/low impact = delegate
  • High probability /low impact = delegate as learning opportunity
  • Medium probability/medium impact = team decision
  • Low probability/high impact = team decision with strong input from leader
  • High probability / high impact = team input, leader makes the decision

Duncan: What’s the single biggest issue you see right now with your clients worldwide?

Spence: It’s crystal clear: lack of accountability/disciplined execution. There’s no lack of cool, innovative, and bold strategies. But taking those ideas and turning them into action is without question the largest roadblock to organizational success. To me, the answer is to create a culture of accountability where people have an “ownership mentality” and consistently deliver the required business results. The five-step process I teach to increase accountability is:

  1. Establish 100% clarity on the desired outcome and give the appropriate authority to achieve that outcome.
  2. Gain 100% agreement from the people who will be held accountable that they agree to deliver the desired outcome and fully accept accountability.
  3. Track and post progress so they know exactly where they stand against their goals.
  4. If they fall behind or falter, step in immediately with the coaching, mentoring, training, and resources necessary to get them back on track.
  5. Reward and celebrate success. Deal decisively with mediocrity.

It amazes me how few organizations follow these five steps with discipline. But without these steps it’s impossible to achieve a high level of accountability and execution.

    This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor.

    Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

Rodger Dean Duncan