I have a skirt that I bought my sophomore year in high school. It’s a cool skirt, dark green with funky little Mayan-looking symbols on it, but it is over thirty years old. I am a culler, not a hoarder, so why on earth would I keep something that long? It’s because, as we women know, some things do not go out of fashion. Year after year, they just still work, and that makes them worth keeping.
Thirteen years ago I showed the faculty at my school part of a video called “In Search of Excellence.” The video was adapted from the iconic business management book of the same name by Robert Waterson, Jr. and Tom Peters. The book was published in 1983 making it the same age as my green Benetton skirt. Recently, when I found a six minute clip of it on Youtube, the first part about Disney, I couldn’t believe how dated it seemed. Tube socks, big hair, the retro tram. Tickets for a day in the park were a whopping $14.00 a piece and you could stay at any of the three Disney hotels. That’s when it occurred to me that 1983 was a long time ago. Today on the Disney website you can count 31 hotels and resorts, and a ticket for a day in the park starts at $101.00.
But don’t be fooled by the age and stage of the video nor the examples in the book. Like my thirty-year-old skirt that now hangs in my daughter’s closet at Emory, “In Search of Excellence” has not gone out of fashion. Instead, it is as relevant and valuable now as it was in the early eighties when a McDonald’s burger was 39 cents and independent school tuitions in NYC were $8,000. EXCELLENCE the word may be out of fashion (widely considered one of the over-used words to avoid on your school website), but EXCELLENCE the concept is alive and well, very much in vogue.
Understanding and articulating your organization’s values is the crux of the chapter on Walt Disney World. According to “In Search of Excellence,” Disney establishes and teaches its values better than any company in the U.S. At Disney, employees are members of a cast, where Mickey and Donald are “cult heroes” and customers are “honored guests.” It is Disney’s obsession with performance that maintains that trademark illusion of perfection and happiness for all. The park is packed, yet somehow people feel like cared-for individuals. You won’t find a piece of trash on the ground, but you will find a smiling face standing within feet of you ready and willing to answer a question. You’ll stand in line to order food and you’ll pay a lot of money for it, but you will get a value; it will be big and hot, and you’ll leave satisfied. Disney’s training program is the envy of businesses all over the world. In fact, it didn’t take long for Disney to monetize that part of its allure too. For a price, the Disney Institute will teach you all it knows about EXCELLENCE.
However, the big question is, even if you can define EXCELLENCE, can you consistently execute it? Does your organization know who it is, know what its customers want, and does it have the right “cast members” in place to make your customers see and feel your value? There is no doubt that companies like Disney employ ample of what I call The Excellence Czar.
Do you have an EXCELLENCE CZAR?
An Excellence Czar (EC) is that person in your organization who has a natural eye for quality. He or she is like the “QA” (Quality Assurance) in a restaurant, the person who stands in the kitchen and double-checks every single dish before it hits the patron’s table. It must be perfect. It must be worth it. If it’s not, it goes back, and the chef starts over. In a school, the EC sees everything from the customer’s point of view. The EC walks in the shoes of the buyer’s journey. It’s a lot to keep up with, but the Excellence Czar thrives on getting it right even if it makes him/her a little less popular.
Here’s an Excellence Czar coaching moment: I called an independent school in the middle of the day and got an automated answer. Rather than covering the phones at lunchtime, this school puts the phone on night ring while the receptionist takes a break. That, right there, is not what this EC considers five-star, but it happens. Even worse, the machine recording provides only three menu choices: infirmary, security house, directory by name.
So back to that buyer’s journey. As EC, I must put myself in the role of the person calling the school. Now I’m a prospective parent and it’s my lunch break, the only time during the day I have to make my inquiry. I’d like to schedule a tour and get some more information, but I don’t know anyone’s names, so I can’t search the directory. The other two options seem appropriate for current parents only, so I have no choice but to hang up. I am frustrated because my time is limited. The only other time I can call is after hours when the recorded menu will be the same. Screw it. I’ll just enroll my kid in the local public school.
Okay so this EC added a little drama but only to make this point–this top tier school needs an Excellence Czar to find this weakness and facilitate a correction. Ends up the answer is simple and easy to fix: let staff take turns covering the phone during lunch, AND add another menu item that connects directly to the Admission Office.
Who is the Excellence Czar in your organization? If you can’t answer that question quickly, then it is time to start thinking about whom to appoint and EMPOWER. Finding that person with the special eye is first. Allowing that person the leeway to needle and pry, to poke and prod, to walk in those buyer shoes, and to find the leaky, weak spots is crucial. Next, you must listen to that person and move quickly towards improvement. Often the fix is simple, so do not make excuses and bury your head. As Ellen Lubin-Sherman so brilliantly states in her book The Essentials of Fabulous, “Because WHATEVER doesn’t work here anymore.”
Finding and empowering your Excellence Czar is one giant step towards the EXCELLENCE that we see at Disney and in so many companies that take the buyer’s experience seriously. You have a choice. You can say to yourselves, “They should know how to do it; anyone can figure it out,” or you can begin your own journey to stand out in a market that is otherwise mired in mediocrity.
EXCELLENCE may be an old, worn-out word, but it’s not going anywhere. Like that green skirt, the next generation is ready to wear, but they’ll only put you on if you continue to be worth it.