Don’t Shy Away from High Standards

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Ever had a manager who really pushed you? Who constantly demanded more out of you? I’m talking someone who didn’t have to say it, but expected you to push and drive for more on a daily basis? To be better. To be on point. To be on time – aka 15 minutes early. To have deliverables and commitments ready means reviewed 3 times the week before it’s needed. To be prepared – aka to have five pre socialization meetings before the actual meeting. To be proactive. To take ownership. To make the client look good. To add value. To speak with conviction. To expect more out of yourself, more than anything.

Fortunately, I had a few managers like that early on in my career. True leaders who constantly issued positive challenges to me. Direct, prescriptive and lucid directions or ideas on how I could be better, take on more responsibility, add more value to our clients, teams and organizations.

Regardless of you’re personal, communal or professional doings – what makes you better as an individual is accountability for your own: attitude, efforts, results. What makes you better in a more leadership-centric role: accountability, effort and ownership over the team’s results. And so on up to the highest levels of organization. 

Today, there’s an epidemic that’s society wide but especially impacts individuals within organizations. People avoid setting high standards for themselves…we’re all guilty of this at some point, just some more than others. Individuals, especially in large organizations, do everything they can to say they’re “innovative”, they’re “leaders”, they’re “engaging”, they’re “proactive” – but this is far from the truth. Most folks are hiding in organizations. And they run like Usain Bolt when high standards are placed on them by others. Setting high standards for other people? That’s why influencers, mentors, managers, coaches, executives, etc. who are good are in short supply, high demand. Setting high standards for other people is hard because it feels confrontational, and people avoid conflict at all costs.

Success + growth today – is predicated on seeking out and staying close to those people who set ridiculously high standards and expectations for you personally, communally and professionally. Sound familiar? Well when you hear people talk about you as the product of the 5 people you most associate with, it makes sense.

Don’t just set high standards and expectations for you personally. Seek out those who demand more of you. Finding them can be hard. Expecting and accepting their challenges is harder. So rise to the occassion, and express gratitude as you grow and learn from them.

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Not only is the story somewhat entertaining if you have experience in a corporate/consulting/team setting but it also does something for me and something for you (readers).

For me, it provides an opportunity to document and reflect on some of the more important experiences that I’ve had so I can pull from them later.

For you, if you’re into this type of thing – whether looking to have more influence, be a better coach or find yourself in a management capacity – I think there are some good lessons…

First, if you’re looking to be a more effective <manager, coach, mentor, influencer, etc.> you have to know your people before you can deploy any strategy around building and growing their capabilities. Why? Let me draw a parallel to horse racing – the jockey knows how much he can get out of his horse – i.e. how much he can drive the horse on a given day. But each horse is different. Sometimes you have a horse that knows zero bounds and would run itself into the ground if you asked it to. Other times, you might be sitting on the next secretariat, but with a sensitive demeanor, or poor attitude. People are the same so you have to learn how to drive them – and that usually takes time, getting to know them. The story below highlights how my manager tapped into my competitive nature and issued positive challenges to get more out of me. You’ll also see that positive challenges are one of the primary tools influencers and high performers use.

Second, when talking about the high level of standards required in achieving & sustaining high performance or influencing people – we have to mention details. In the story I’ll paint a picture for why the tiniest details matter. High performers have ridiculously high expectations. It’s in their DNA to almost “look down” on folks who don’t uphold these types of standards. Plus, each time you cut a corner, or let something go, you’re creating an opening for “good enough” to be acceptable.

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First, let’s level set on semantics I used in the title of this paragraph. A ‘manager’ could plausibly be anyone who oversees the responsibilities, efforts and results of a single other person or it could be anyone with a ‘management’ title – a range which could run up from a small team or division manager to a regional director or CEO.

So when I say direct manager, I’m referring to a manager in consulting. Where he was responsible for growing + building me as a consultant and ensuring that I was performing for the client. But by defenition, doing the bare minimum – i.e. making sure I delivered just enough, making sure the client was happy, making sure I didn’t fuck things up too much – that would be enough by definition as far as his management responsibilites are concerned.

But that’s not a high performer…I’ll reiterate: a high performer is someone who sets high standards for themselves and isn’t afraid to push high standards and expectations on those around them. That’s exactly what he did.

I remember these days vividly – even missing them at times – the laughs, camaraderie and ridiculous personalities of colleagues and clients (especially). We were about three months into the most challenging engagement I had ever been on. It was in the wealth management business unit of a large investment bank – working on an initiative that had c-level visibility and lots of attention,  when I first dropped the term ‘irregardless’.

My manager – we’ll call him Andy for now – and I were debating how an array of financial account types (think retirement vs. brokerage vs. trust, etc.) would require different back-end processes to support a front end experience that collects varying types and amounts of required regulatory information from clients.

In the heat of debate, I said something along the lines of: “well, irregardless, the individual and brokerage accounts have the same reg requirements”.

Andy fired back with: “no, that’s not right”.

Perplexed, I said: “what do you mean that’s not right? I’m looking at the requirements right in front of me”.

Andy just laughs and, while jumping onto a call we were 6 minutes late for, said: “Sorry dude, I meant that first part of what you said was wrong. It’s regardless. Irregardless isn’t a word, you know that right?”

I couldn’t help but laught, knwoing he was right, and mentioned in passing that I had my mom to thank for that habit.

Over the next few months I focused big on getting rid of that word – and other poor verbal habits I had. Bad habits, straight up, are tough to rewire. And I could have chose to ignore something seemingly so miniscule. Because how much does it really help you to use the mental bandwidth, willpower or discipline to avoid tiny mistakes lke that? Ones that don’t really seem to be a driver of benefit or value. Surprisingly, it’s a tremendous value-add over time because you begin to catch even the smalles of issues in verbal + written semantics. The problem, is that it’s not measurable – which in business many times means it’s invisible – and certainly not gratifying or noticeable for your performance review.

The engagement was moving along at hyper-speed and I came to know just how detailed Andy was. I’d always prided myself on attention to detail being one of my competencies. But he was on another level, and it just came with ease for him. It was his standard.

That type of a-game standard can be one of two things: intimidating or inspiring. Either you welcome it, and embrace the positive challenge issued to you, asking you to rise to the occassion or you dismiss it and pick apart the rationale or motive behind it. Accepting the challenge is always the decision that makes you better.

About 8 months into the engagement I had grown a lot and learned a ton from Andy. I had built trust with the clients, as well as Andy, and was driving things on the ground at the client site managing stakeholders while he was overseas or working remotely from out of state.

In one of our last meetings together in New York we had a number of senior clients in a meeting where I was walking through a massive road map of our requirements, process flows and an inventory of product capabilities. Andy was sitting directly to my right at the corner of a big conference room table, and I was answering some questions about potential engagement dependencies with other initiatives when I decided again to drop the word irregardless.

Client A: “What happens if feature Y doesn’t get delivered before X as we expected?”

Adam: “Well, based on our analysis and discussion with blue team, you really don’t need Y before X, because X can piggy-back off of Z’s requirements – which has a guaranteed delivery ahead of X. So “irregardless” of Y’s delivery, we still get X as part of day one minimum viable product.”

*Almost immediately Andy slides over a little bit and I feel a nudge on my foot/ankle, so I glance over at him. He’s glaring at me with a smirk and shaking his head. We have a client who may take the cake for being the toughest we’ve worked with, and Andy can tell he picked up on my “interesting” word choice. After the meeting:

Andy: “Dude, seriously? Great job in there, but irregardless is still not a word. English is my second language. You gotta be better. Especially with ‘client A’ in there. You know how he is – he loves those <consulting firm x> guys – don’t wanna give him any ammunition against us.”

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Assuming you’ve made it this far (thanks for suffering through it), I bet some of you are saying “wow, that’s petty”. While that’s ok, my assumption is that you’re not used to setting high standards for yourself. More specifically, you’re not comfortable with someone challenging you or setting seemingly unrealistic standards for you to live up to.

The story is just one of many examples of attention to detail, professionalism and leading by example type lessons from Andy. I’ve never in my life been told that I needed to focus heavily on attention to detail until my time with him. And you know what? I needed to hear it multipel times before I owned it and got around my natural defense mechanism, which was my old narrative that I was always the most detailed person in the room.

So, take home messages. Do you want to have influence on people? Having influence requires that you expect first from yourself, and then from others. That you can issue positive challenges to people’s competence, character, contributions and connections to team or customers. Today, more than ever, setting high standards is tough because people shy away from them, don’t believe in honoring the struggle, and avoid conflict at all costs. But you can’t back down from the expectations of others, and you can’t adjust your high standards to accomodate those around you.

The highest performers, managers, coaches, mentors, etc. change the way you think. They challenge your character. Hold you to universal standards. Never say don’t sweat the details or allow you to cut even the smallest of corners personally, communally or professionally. Having influence requires you to challenge the way people think, challenge them to contribute more, and to “role model” the way it’s supposed to be done.

Andy did that for me day in and day out. Andy developed influce with me. And for that, I’m fuckin’ thankful. Hopefully this little story helps you think about how to perform better and influence people positively.


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