L.I.S.T.E.N.—E is for Excellence

L.I.S.T.E.N.—E is for Excellence

“The ultimate goal of listening is to know others and to be known by others
There is always more to learn about someone else.”

Listening 2by2: A Paradigm Shift for Leaders (That’s When the Magic Happens!)

Every week, for the next six weeks, we are sharing one of Someone To Tell It To’s values, one for each letter in the acronym L. I. S. T. E. N. These are values that we do our very best to model for and share with others. We believe these values hold the power to brighten our lives and to bring hope and reassurance in healing and helpful ways.

Today’s value is the letter E: Excellence.

There is always room to learn and grow

  • We strive to enable one another to do what is most life-giving and fulfilling within their roles and to support them in the aspects that are harder for them to embrace
  • We will always strive to fine-tune our strengths and to recognize and acknowledge where we can be better
  • We always have a reason to celebrate, especially if we are working well.

A few years ago Someone To Tell It To was invited to lead a two-day retreat for a large non-profit struggling with communication issues.  The founder and CEO had established a set of values for the organization, but over time, she felt as though those values were being misrepresented and watered down.  

We could sense her disappointment.  

We could also sense the angst among the staff to even have a retreat like this, based on past experiences resulting in additional hurt feelings and greater disunity. 

The first day of the retreat we took time, as we often do, to listen to each member of the team, including the CEO.  Over the years we’ve used the tagline, “People don’t heal unless they first reveal.”  Meaning, in order to move forward, we need to be able to fully express ourselves, safely, to truly see a problem, internal or external, for what it is.  We can’t move forward without acknowledging the areas of hurt, pain, brokenness, dysfunction, and unrest.  Fortunately for this nonprofit, they were able to express themselves vulnerably and authentically that first day with us.

One of the pain points we heard about the most from the staff concerned the culture of perfection that was a dark underbelly of much of the tension – and as a result – the organization experienced high levels of turnover, burnout, and genuine dissatisfaction. 

On the other hand, the CEO expressed her disappointment that her teams weren’t measuring up to expectations, the expectations she had for herself in the “early years”, when she would work overtime, giving sacrificially and selflessly.   

By the end of the first day, it became clear that the values of the organization were nearly unachievable, especially the first value, excellence.  From the staff’s point of view, they were feeling as if they couldn’t make mistakes, and if they did, their jobs were in jeopardy.  Staff members worked themselves into exhaustion, never feeling as if “enough was enough”.   

The CEO stated that she felt as if no one cared enough, in turn, less than good results and growth occurred.   

By the end of the second day, we felt as if we had worked with the team to address the problem by shifting some of the values, mainly moving the value of excellence from value #1 to value #3 or 4.  Together we were able to see that having a value of excellence as the primary value, team members weren’t being valued for who they were, simply what they did or didn’t do (it was more times the latter) to help the non-profit.

As we’ve reflected on that non-profit, we’ve learned some important lessons:

We must value people first.  If we don’t value our team members for simply who they are, not what they produce, people become a means to an end, (and not the end).   People aren’t robots, people have deep emotions, perspectives, attachments, and personalities.

We are all fantastic individuals! In our first book, Someone To Tell It To: Sharing Life’s Journey, we shared a time when we attended a seminar in which the keynote speaker, David P. Reinhardt, presented on the topic: “Arctic Insights: Learning from the Pack about Leadership and Life!”  He spoke about his deep love for Alaskan husky dogs and Alaska itself.  He shared how he has traveled in the state extensively and has participated in the classic annual Alaskan sled dog race, the Iditarod.  One point Reinardt made during his presentation resonated strongly with both of us.  He started describing each of the huskies on his team and what his dogs have taught him about life and leadership.  As he spoke about each one by name, he listed each one’s’ most special attributes – such as one’s energy, another’s patience, another’s’ stamina, and another’s sense of direction.  He also listed each of their other individual characteristics – such as one being easily distracted, another aloof, another a bit skittish, and another’s nervousness.

When Reinhardt described each husky, he didn’t discuss their strengths and then say, “But here are his weaknesses. Here are her flaws.” Instead, he said, “These are his strengths, and these are other aspects of her personality.” It was subtle. But he spoke volumes with his choice of words. Reinhardt wasn’t saying that the dogs had their weaknesses. He was saying instead that they simply had unique and different characteristics from one another. He was saying that each dog was unequaled, that each dog offered distinctive attributes that added something valuable to the team. He was saying that each dog had gifts that were important and that mattered.

Reinhardt’s message about the dogs and about us as humans in leadership and life included the following points:

• Every individual has pros and cons.

• Your pros and cons aren’t any better (or worse) than anyone else’s … just different.

• Focus on the positive and accept — even embrace — the negatives.

• Some “negatives” can be useful!

• People are a package deal … You don’t get to pick and choose!

• Don’t let minor differences become major conflicts with other people!

• If two people are totally compatible, one of them is useless.

He concluded, “We are all fantastic individuals!

Every one of us has our strengths and those parts of us that make us unique. Some would call them weaknesses.  But those perceived “weaknesses” or “oddities” or “shortcomings” are what make us who we are — and we are all fantastic individuals!

We can strive for excellence without expecting perfection.  We live in a broken world.  And we are broken people.  We hurt each other.  We don’t always communicate as we should.  We sometimes make choices that don’t line up with our values.  It’s part of human nature.  Yet, we can always strive to better ourselves.  We can learn from our mistakes.  We can pick each other up when we feel down.  We are all in this together.  We all need one another to navigate well through this turbulent life.  If we care and listen – truly, intentionally, graciously listen, and grow to know one another’s very human and incredibly powerful stories – we can begin to heal ourselves and the world.  

A few weeks later, after the retreat with the nonprofit, we met with one of the organization’s board members to follow up on the retreat.

The board member, who was at the retreat, shocked us with a perspective that she had.  She indicated to us that the employees of the nonprofit willingly sought jobs there, and therefore, knowing it was a nonprofit, should not expect to be paid as much as other businesses or organizations might pay.  She had the attitude that service-minded nonprofits shouldn’t be expected to pay people a competitive salary.  She thought that they should be satisfied with what they received, even though it was quite a bit lower than they could have gotten somewhere else.  She said that they should be grateful they have a job and could go somewhere else if they were not satisfied.

While we absolutely understand the financial restraints that nonprofits so often operate under – trust us, we live in those restraints – we also believe that if you value your team members and hope for them to do all that they do with excellence, they need to be paid for their excellent service.  They need to be valued.  They need to be thanked.  They need to be affirmed.  They need to be respected.  They need to be told and shown that their contributions matter to the health and impact of the organization.

While we strive for excellence, we also strive before that to appreciate and honor the talents, abilities, and gifts of those who provide the service.  People who know they are valued will value others in return and will do their best to serve and care and give and share to help this world be a kinder, more compassionate, better place.  Excellence in showing appreciation and gratitude certainly can enable people to strive for excellence in their work so that others are served with distinction.

Read more about our L.I.S.T.E.N. values in this series:

L is for Listen

I is for Impassioned

S is for Service

T is for Teamwork

E is for Excellence

N is for Notice


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