Don't Be Flippant -- Setting Standards, Part 2

In my first two years in college, I played basketball at Purdue University for Hall of Fame coach Gene Keady. Believe it or not, Coach had just one team rule for us: “Do your best.” Simple as it was, that standard influenced the way I thought and set the tone for our basketball program. (It also gave Coach all the ammunition he needed any time one of us slacked off in practice or made poor choices in our academic or social endeavors.) To see the clarity that standard created, simply note that I remember it today, more than 20 years later. In last week’s blog entry, we met Colonel Art Athens, the Director of the Center for Ethical Leadership at the Naval Academy. He shared that when it comes to the leader’s responsibility to “Set Direction,” one key method for doing so is setting standards, standards like “Do your best.” Though its difficult to argue with the wisdom of creating standards, doing so should not be done flippantly. No matter the standards we choose, we and those we lead have to live with the consequences of implementing them.

Here are a couple of truths about standards worth considering before we put them in place.

Truth #1: Standards are About Culture, Not Goals

Though they may be difficult to tell apart at times, standards and goals are not one in the same. One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between the two is whether or not they change based on current conditions. Goals often change month to month, quarter to quarter, and year to year. Unless you’re in the middle of an intentional culture shift, standards tend to stay the same.

Standards set the tone of the culture we are developing. They don’t merely give people a sense of stability; they create the atmosphere in which we lead. It’s as if standards create a bubble around those you lead that says, “I’m not sure how everyone out there is living, but this is how we operate in here.”

When choosing the standards by which our followers will live, it is important to ask ourselves, “What type of culture am I attempting to develop and maintain?”

When you imagine those you lead describing how they operate, what do you hope they will say?

Truth #2: Standards Are Often Expensive

It sounds inspiring during the recruiting or on-boarding process to hear, “In this organization, we respond to each other within 24 hours of the phone call, email, or text message.” This standard communicates that each person in the firm is important as are the immediate needs of clients. But what happens when it’s midnight and the 24 hour deadline is looming over not one but 13 emails? What happens when standards for being client-centric mean that employees must miss anniversary dinners and family vacations? What happens when the standards for safety conflict with the production requests of the company’s largest client and refusing to meet the demand could result in the loss of jobs? Before we start setting them, we must first recognize that standards are often expensive; they will cost those who live under them something valuable.

Though some may be tempted to do so, avoiding the creation and implementation of standards so as to avoid the cost of following them is not an effective solution. Standard-less leaders and organizations are unattractive. They don't lead to much of anything. They lack the backbone to which we as followers are drawn. They inspire no one and do nothing special in the world.

If we are to lead well, we must carefully choose our standards while accepting that our standards will, at times, cost everyone in the organization something.

When developing standards, ask ourselves, “On what hills am I willing to die?” and “What standards are so critical that they are worth the potential pain they may cause me and those I lead.”

Join us next week when we’ll take a look two more truths about standards. In the meantime, keep pondering and planning where you can to set direction for those you lead by wisely setting standards.

Share Your Thoughts: How have standards impacted the cultures in which you've worked? Have you ever seen leaders miscalculate the cost of setting standards? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

photo credit: Jeffrey Beall via photopincc

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