Don’t Settle for Mediocrity

Aug 04, 1997

Most of us heard it from our parents at some point in our childhood: “You can grow up to be anything you want, but be the best at it you can be.” It’s a good message. With that kind of positive programming, you would think people would grow up to be highly motivated, highly successful, excellence-pursuers who’ll stop at nothing in their ever-vigilant quest for perfection. But the fact is, there are lots of people working in A/E/P and environmental consulting firms who have forgotten this message and settled into lives of mediocrity. In short, they’re what I call “duds.” What can we, as owners and managers of firms that require our people to give 110% effort every day, do about this mediocrity problem? Here’s what: Let the word out that doing a yeoman’s job isn’t good enough. I’ve heard this in A/E/P and environmental firms for so long now: “We aren’t looking for the next president. All I want is a decent electrical engineer (or CADD operator, or bookkeeper, etc.).” This thinking almost makes me want to reach out and slap someone! Let me tell you, unless you plan on winding down your company, everyone will need to assume more responsibility, to move up at some point down the road. You cannot clog up the lower levels with duds and think your company will advance as an organization. Stop hiring people in a crisis and settling for the best you can find right then (a dud). “Duds” are people who just don’t care much about anything. They have no pride, no ego, and have resigned themselves to the fact that they won’t accomplish anything or get anywhere. They may be real nice people— I just don’t want them working in my company. They are cancerous, and their “dud” attitude will spread to others who are easily influenced by their peers. It’s usually not hard to spot a dud. They have a look that says “I’m a loser and I’m O.K. with that.” They might not be able to look at you when they speak. Their cars and clothes would be embarrassing to most. They make errors in their resumes and cover letters. Their grades were rather poor. They may live in the trashy part of town. They don’t do anything exciting or interesting in their free time. But the truth is, even though firms may know better than to hire one of these people, they may not have anyone who looks better to them. They don’t have any better choices because they don’t plan for their needs, don’t spend any time or money on recruiting, and wait too late so the need becomes dire. They know that promises to clients won’t be kept unless somebody starts to work on their project now! Make sure your leaders are positive role models. Do you have principals clogging up the ranks and setting a lousy example for work ethic, quality, client service, neatness, or attitude? If so, do something about it. Because your lower-level people are going to look at your principals to see what they do, and that will set the standard for your firm. And don’t rationalize that everyone knows So-and-So can get away with that because he/she has been with the firm a thousand years, not because you think So-and-So is a stellar performer. That doesn’t excuse you from doing your job as the boss to confront So-and-So with whatever it is they are doing wrong. But the truth is, too many So-and-Sos have been allowed to get away with being mediocre for so long that to confront them now would probably fail. So maybe they need to move on? Make sure you are a positive role model for your leaders. If you are slovenly, lazy, don’t care about the clients, have low goals and expectations, then your second tier will probably be just like you. If, on the other hand, you show that you care every day, work hard, strive to do everything you do better every time you do it, you’ll probably have managers who are just like you. Keep setting higher and higher goals for your organization and your people. Having high goals and really showing that you’re serious about them may be the best possible antidote to the mediocrity disease. I’ve found that these high goals will scare off those who are mediocre. They become intimidated. They get stressed. They have all kinds of anxiety. Then they tend to seek other employment. High achievers, on the other hand, like working in a company that thinks it’s going somewhere, for leaders who seem committed to stay the course. One other thing— having high goals and then continuously monitoring the performance of individuals, work groups, and the firm overall is also critical to letting people know that you’re serious about those goals. Duds won’t like this kind of accountability and evidence of what they’re supposed to be accomplishing. To summarize, mediocrity is a bad thing. A few bad apples can spoil the barrel. You have to have high expectations, hire the right people, pay special attention to who is in the management jobs, set a good example yourself, and keep pushing up the bar. Do what’s likely to attract the high achievers, and set everything up in your firm so that duds won’t want to join you or stay if they’re already there. Originally published 8/04/1997

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