At Your Service: Oct. 8, 2008

Approaching the door, I could see through the window and tell from the look on the face of the man behind the counter that this was the place I had heard about. The wares being sold were a perfect representation of the kinds of goods once sold everywhere: bolts of fabric lined up like soldiers against the wall and everything else was positioned for easy viewing. Despite the chill in the air and the frost on the economy, the man’s face was the picture of calm, secured in place by a smile.
I often wrestle with the question of excellence. The Oxford English Dictionary, my resident authority, defines excellence as: “1. The state or fact of excelling; the possession chiefly of good qualities in an eminent or unusual degree; surpassing merit, skill, virtue, worth, etc....” This indicates that it is an active state. I tend to think of it in the same vein as happiness in the Declaration of Independence – something to be pursued, even if rarely attained.
We often confuse excellence with perfection. However, excellence is more often found nestled between our frailties and failures. It is not so much in the outcome as it is in the process. Hard times could have easily made our shopkeeper angry or bitter. Instead, it seems to have turned on his resolve and sharpened his focus on what matters most to a retail business – the delivery of quality products to satisfied customers.
For many years, in a previous life, I worked with companies on Wall Street. Among my clients was a company many held up as an example of one consistently delivering excellence. That company was Lehman Brothers. Some 15 years ago, their management team was putting in place training systems that inspired their employees to perform at their best. The company’s management practices and principles matched responsibility to authority, creating an environment in which the staff from top to bottom was clear about their responsibilities and rewarded for “excellent” performance.
On Capitol Hill and across the country, many are now asking what happened. While many will speculate, the answer to this question is clear to me. Somewhere between high dividends and lucrative bonuses, someone (or many ones) took their eye off the ball. Personal reward became more important than serving the needs of customers.
This question is part of the on-going public debate. I think that when the dust settles we will find that the organization ceased to be excellent when image became more important than substance. The substance of financial institutions is security – the security its customers feel when they know their financial affairs are safe and in the hands of people functioning from a base of integrity.
A good case could be made that the efforts of some individuals within the organization exhibited high levels of performance; their public relations executives were certainly successful in placing stories that boosted the public opinion of the Lehman Brothers and helped to position it for special concessions from other institutions and government agencies.
The purist in me scoffs at the notion that such a mess could have contained even a morsel of excellence, and the cynic in me wonders if excellence is ever more than a flash in the pan. After some consideration, I am returned to the notion that excellence is merely an active state of pursuit. It is something more often viewed in retrospect or from afar.
Our shopkeeper is not necessarily striving for excellence. He is, instead, simply trying to get through some bad times with his head high. He is using the money from his savings to buy the merchandise his customers need. Dinner out, for he and his family, has returned to being a luxury and beans and potatoes have moved up in frequency on the family menu. Yet, he still wears a smile. He is truly happy to see every customer come through his door. When asked, his simple response is, “I’m doing the best I can.”
We cannot know what the future will bring us or where the twists and turns of this economy will take us. We can go about our business in a way that may someday reach excellence by simply giving it our best shot along the way. Perhaps the pursuit of excellence is one route on the path in pursuit of happiness.