Monday, September 20, 2004

When Being Less Than Excellent Is More Excellent

At the end of the last post I included a link to an article titled A Balanced Approach to Human Resources. This article stresses the need for HR professionals to become excellent risk takers.

This was reinforced for me this evening when I read an excerpt from a speech given by John D. Zeglis, the Chairman of AT&T Wireless. The speech was given to new members of Phi Beta Kappa honor society at George Washington University.

Because I like what he has to say so much, the following is the first several paragraphs in full:

As I speak, I have to be careful because it's just possible that a room like this has my future boss in it, and I don't want to offend her.

What is the essential message on a day you reach a pinnacle of academic success? The good news starts with the word that sums up the characteristics of all of you: excellence. Excellence is a choice. As John Gardner put it:

"Very few people have excellence thrust upon them. They achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly by doing what comes naturally, and they don't stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose."

You are here because you've made a habit of excellence. Occasional brilliance will not get you into Phi Beta Kappa. You are not one-subject wonders. You've established your intellectual credentials in a wide range of subjects. The excellence that brings you here is not accidental. You have chosen to pursue it and you have earned it. You've broken the code of how to get it done. And that stays with you for life.

A word of caution from a worldly wise old guy who was once in your shoes: There is a paradoxical thing about academic excellence. If you want to continue your habit of excellence after graduation, you will have to learn how to take risks--and to fail more often than you're used to.

If excellence is the word for today, the word for your future is achievement. They are not disconnected. But they're not self-executing either--it's not automatic that you can go from excellence to high achievement in "the real world." Many people who are excellent in school don't have the same success over their lifetimes. Locking in a formula for excellence early in life, as you've done in your academic work, often makes people risk-averse. They know how to be excellent, and they aren't about to start taking risks on being less than excellent. But sometimes a little less success and a little more failure is a good thing.


The last thought sounds a lot like many HR professionals, doesn't it? They become so excellent at human resources that they become unwilling to take risks. It's important to remember that excellence isn't about perfection. Excellence in business requires well thought out actions and decisions that very often include risks.

You can read more of Mr. Zeglis' speech in Phi Beta Kappa's newsletter, the Key Reporter. There's a PDF of the newsletter available here.

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