Death of a Salesman, or Death of a Company?

I have been having conversations with numerous employees and other company leadership about the meaning of individual excellence versus organizational excellence. The reason is because when I was growing up, it was not uncommon for our parents to work for one company for most of their lives. In those days, the company was considered a part of the family, where people stayed and continued to support because the company cared about them, and took responsibility for them by providing benefits, job security, training, commitment and promotional growth. Ultimately our parents stayed because they were providing their customers the same thing the company was giving to them, good feelings and sense of ownership. Unless something significantly changed, the company was rewarded by customer loyalty because of the outstanding service they received and the good feelings inspired by the attention of the employees — attention that arose from the organizational and individual excellence provided.

Times have changed, particularly in the government services market. Loyalty to the company is all but gone. The customer no longer sees the company for what it was and is, a key part of the service its employees provide, which includes an understanding of customer needs, corporate knowledge and uninterrupted support. Instead, the company has become a warehouse, where people who meet minimal expectations, who possess minimal qualifications, and work for minimal dollars are waiting for the next company to win their customer’s work. The customer has set the standard, but in so doing, they have destroyed the company as we once knew it, as well as the reason a company exists — to hire and attract people who can dedicate their time to the goals of the company and create individual excellence, and ultimately, organizational excellence.

For years federal government customers awarded contracts based on a firm’s past performance or what the organization brought (people, management, historical performance, innovation, etc.) to meet the stated goals and expectations, assuming a reasonable price. In today’s environment, the customer does not value what the company brings. Instead, it values the incumbent workforce, regardless of how employees will be treated once they are forced to switch companies (i.e., reduction of salary, benefits, tenure and no promotional opportunity). What happened to the meaning and importance of organizational excellence versus individual excellence in the federal market?

In his best-selling book, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters says “there is no such thing as excellent organizations, only those that believe in continuous improvement.” In my view, excellence starts with the organization, but it must include individual excellence, which is a culture that is built from the top down in an atmosphere where continuous improvement and the quality of performance are the cornerstones of the organization. Peters notes:

“The pursuit of excellence, in any form can be considered an ambitious and often challenging undertaking. It implies the ability to perform at a consistently high level, which must depend on the ability to master the fundamental tasks you are doing, provide quality solutions using best practices, and measure performance. This accentuates the importance and value of a culture of continuous improvement in people, processes and the organization.”

Companies recognize that organizational excellence is challenging because of the consistent level of commitment, cooperation and alignment required of so many people. But to get organizational excellence, you need individuals who are dedicated to the company and have a shared vision that provides the focus required to help “make it happen.” Without a strong individual commitment to this shared vision, there is little hope for a company to create a strong and prosperous future that contributes to the organizational success. At the same time, Peters says:

“The pursuit of individual excellence without regard for its impact on team or organizational performance and other parts of the organization should be discouraged. This is one of the trade-offs employees make when they join a company. They give up some of their freedom to do exactly what they wish, and the company agrees to cooperate with them in the pursuit of shared goals. This does not rule out the pursuit of individual excellence, but it does mean we must define individual excellence in the context of organizational performance.”

Moving people to the next company does not guarantee organizational excellence. Most employees want a career where they have consistency in employment, the opportunity to provide quality results, growth in responsibility, and a culture of organizational commitment. Instead, in today’s environment, individuals are continually starting over, resulting in indifference and despondent attitudes due to lack of consistency and future growth.

Our federal customers’ measure of success is the number of incumbent employees placed on the contract, not the commitment, knowledge, loyalty and excellence these employee obtained because they were a part of a company who has proven organizational excellence. But to destroy the excellence our companies have built for years diminishes the value the individual brings and ultimately, what the company brings. The bottom line is that our customers’ disregard for the organizational aspect the company brings will limit the level of commitment and excellence the individual needs. Worse yet, the company will have no purpose, no vision, and no incentive to continue, since personal and organizational growth is not an option.

We have come a long way from where our parents were, but unfortunately it is the wrong way. Without the dedication of the company to the individual, individual excellence will not be achieved. Without the dedication of the employee to the company, organizational excellence will not be achieved and the company may not survive. By changing our customers’ view and bringing to their attention that individual excellence alone will not meet their needs, companies can succeed. Aristotle is quoted as saying: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” It’s that simple, clear, concise and applicable at all levels of excellent organizations. Our customers need to understand this.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Service Contractor, a publication of the Professional Services Council.