Why Excellence Is Not The Opposite Of Failure


Excerpted from the phenomenal First, Break All The Rules, written by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, 1999

Conventional wisdom asserts that good is the opposite of bad, that if you want to understand excellence, you should investigate failure and then invert it. In society at large, we define good health as the absence of disease. In the classroom, we talk to kids on drugs to learn how to keep kids off drugs and delve into the details of truancy to learn how to keep more kids in school.

And in the working world, this fascination with pathology is just as pervasive. Managers are far more articulate about service failure than they are about service success, and many still define excellence as “zero defects.”

When it comes to understanding talent, this focus on pathology has caused many managers to completely misdiagnose what it takes to excel in a particular role. For example, many managers think that because bad salespeople suffer from call reluctance, great salespeople must not; or that because bad waiters are too opinionated, great waiters must keep their opinions in check.

Reject this focus on pathology. You cannot infer excellence from studying failure and then inverting it. Why? Because excellence and failure are often surprisingly similar. Average is the anomaly.

For example, by studying the best sales people, great managers have learned that the best, just like the worst, suffer call reluctance. Apparently the best salesperson, as with the worst, feels as if he is selling himself. It is this striving talent of feeling personally invested in the sale that causes him to be so persuasive. But it also causes him to take the rejection personally — every time he makes a sales call he feels the shiver of fear that someone will say no to him, to him.

The difference between greatness and failure in sales is that the great salesperson is not paralyzed by this fear. He is blessed with another talent, the relating talent of confrontation, that enables him to derive immense satisfaction from sparring with the prospect and overcoming resistance. Every day he feels call reluctance, but this talent for confrontation pulls him through it. His love of sparring outweighs his fear of personal rejection.

Lacking this talent for confrontation, the bad salesperson simply feels the fear.

The average salesperson feels nothing. He woodenly follows the six-step approach he has been taught and hopes for the best.

By studying their best, great managers are able to overturn many similarly long-standing misconceptions. For example, they know that the best waiters, just like the worst, form strong opinions. The difference between the best and the worst is that the best waiters use their quickly formed opinions to tailor their style to each particular table of customers, whereas the worst are just rude — average waiters form no opinions and so give every table the same droning spiel.

You cannot learn very much about excellence from studying failure. Of all the infinite number of ways to perform a certain task, most of them are wrong. There ore only a few right ways. Unfortunately you don’t come any closer to identifying those right ways by eliminating the wrong ways. Excellence is not the opposite of failure. It is just different.


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