The first business book I ever bought (and actually read) was In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman. You may not have heard of it, but it was published in 1982 (yep, 40 years ago). I can’t quite recall when I got it, but I was a senior manager at a large college bookstore at the time - I’m pretty sure I bought it there, and read it while I was trying to figure out how to be a decent manager, at 23 years old.
I thought it was brilliant, although TBH, I knew almost nothing about business at the time. It was well before I earned my MBA at Stanford GSB; in fact, as an undergrad, I’d studied developmental psychology. To fulfill my “hard” science credits, I took an intro biology class, which forever changed me with a single lesson.
It was this phrase: Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Lyrical, memorable, and at the time, it blew my mind. What I understood it to mean then, in the words of my bio prof, was “the way an individual develops replays the development of its entire species.” This theory has since been debunked, but for the purposes of my story, that’s irrelevant.
What matters is that my path was forever changed. That phrase, encoded in my memory in 1976, leapt out at me – and it’s why I devoured In Search of Excellence. I remember thinking: if an individual’s development can tell us something about how its species developed, then certainly the development of an organization (a complex organism, at least metaphorically) could be presaged by understanding the development of the individuals who built it. So I devoured that book. Thus began my lifelong fascination with how organizations develop and how the development of the individuals working in those organizations affects their growth trajectory. And that’s how I’ve come to know you.
So, I kept digging. As a grad school student, I spent an entire quarter researching family systems theory and how a family system could affect the development of the individuals in that family. Encouraged by my beloved mentor, James March, I developed my own theory about how one’s family of origin would affect how one feels about one’s workplace and the people in it, and therefore how it develops. To this day, I am grateful to Jim. But I digress.
In retrospect, life paths often look more intentional than they were, and as I look back, my passion for working with executives on growing excellent organizations seems obvious. But at the time, all I knew is that I, too, wanted to search for excellence, and to help organizations get closer to it.
Fast-forward to last summer, when I was rebranding my business. It was hard work (if you’ve ever branded anything, you know what I mean). Loads of self-reflection and sorting out who I am, who I serve, and how I work with clients. What became completely clear to me is that I have a core set of beliefs:
1. People inherently want to do meaningful work, and they want to do it well.
2. Organizations of all sizes most often succeed despite themselves (People make lots of mistakes, and sometimes things work out anyway.)
3. Bureaucracy, while needed, inherently dehumanizes people in exchange for “efficiency”.
4. People have more choices about how they behave than they think they do; often, they need others to help them see this.
5. Leaders have tremendous impact on the people they work with, but often, these leaders are completely unaware of the impact they have.
6. My purpose is to leave the world better off than I found it.
7. Helping leaders be courageously “choice-ful” (especially when driven by their beliefs and values) can bring more humanity into organizations.
8. More humanity = more energy = more innovation = more impact = more value for all, creating a virtuous cycle.
These beliefs culminated in the new taglines that you see on the Leading LARGE website – Dare to Grow. Choose to Excel. If we all do this, together, we can accomplish far more than we can alone. That’s why I work with executives who are brave enough to do these two things.
I hope these two exhortations inspire you on your leadership journey! As we enter into the darker wintry days in the Northern Hemisphere, perhaps you’ll reflect on what excellence means to you, and how you might choose it ever more proactively as you continue to grow.
(P.S. If you want to read some funny history about In Search of Excellence, with inside McKinsey gossip, check out this article from Fast Company!)