How Companies Go from Ordinary to Extraordinary

Excellence can be obtained if you care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical and expect more than others think is possible.

- Anonymous

In our uncertain economy, it's more important than ever to be part of a company designated as one of the "Best Places to Work."

Why? Because those who work in such an environment exhibit a sense of pride, are willing to stretch and are heavily invested in the wellbeing of the company. As a result, they are more motivated to give their best, and more resilient and tolerant to downturns. That elevated spirit is the equivalent of throwing a flat stone that skims across a clear lake and sends out a series of concentric circles that reaches wide and deep within the company and far beyond its borders - to its customers, its applicants, its competitors, and its community.

What ingredients are essential to be designated by the phrase "Best Places." Our experience has repeatedly highlighted nine factors:

  1. Trust is the cornerstone of any successful organization.
    It reduces uncertainty, fosters direct communication, limits double talk and second guessing and increases the efficiency and effectiveness of making things happen.
  2. The ability to take prudent risks.
    We don't equate risk as being synonymous with uncertainty. We view it as understanding the laws of opportunity and probability. Those who truly understand their business take intelligent risks. Under this scenario the net effect is that people appreciate that they gain by not being afraid to lose.
  3. A can-do attitude that promotes pragmatic optimism.
    This is a critical factor that challenges the risk adverse person and naysayer. It energizes the organization and moves innovative ideas that might languish into dynamic actions that can be measured and acted upon.
  4. The capacity to manage the fundamentals.
    There is a focus on the core strengths and talent that includes the desire to set the course, prioritize the essentials and select those most capable of delivering the goods. Assignments are given to people with a strong history of accountability and responsibility and a proven track record.
  5. The courage to make, acknowledge and repair mistakes.
    Mistakes are the unavoidable threads woven into the fabric of our lives. None of us escape this fate, no matter how smart, confident or cautious we may be. A confident organization will trust a reliable person to make a mistake. They appreciate that such an initiative is part of a learning attitude that has the potential to convert a mistake into a portal of discovery that could lead to new opportunities.
  6. A Commitment to Work with Others
    This concept recognizes that people are empowered by other people, and that they and the organization become their best when they cooperate and share their spoils. It eschews narcissistic behavior and the dog-eat-dog competitive system of winners and losers.
  7. Develop a Diverse Team.
    A "Best" company includes those with different backgrounds as well as the full spectrum of those at different points in their life cycle. Such different experiences and cognitive mindsets create an exciting culture that fosters innovation and pays enormous dividends.
  8. Reward successful projects.
    Good work should be acknowledged, in a timely manner with appropriate rewards.
  9. A safe work environment- physically, mentally and spiritually- with zero tolerance.
    Among many factors this includes a policy that has teeth that spells no favoritism, bullying or other forms of harassment and treating people with respect and dignity. No one regardless of their title should be immune. A lax attitude regarding these issues sets the stage for a toxic environment.

To sustain the role of "Best Place" requires a deep ongoing commitment from strong leadership that serves as a role model. One doesn't have to have spectacular or expensive ideas to be the "Best." Any company with a sincere desire to do so can make it happen. John Gardner, the former head of Common Cause, defined Excellence as "doing ordinary things extraordinarily well."


Barrie Sanford Greiff, M.D. is a former Psychiatrist for Harvard Business School.  Richard J. Levin Ed.D. is an executive coach and commentator for PBS Nightly News Report.

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