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Where’s the vision when you’re far from the front line?

Operational excellence and reality

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

If you asked various people in your organization what your vision is, what would they say? Would the same big picture roll off the tongues of each person like it did when you were a startup? Or would you hear disparate and unrecognizable descriptions that have never been part of your dream?

In the beginning, all five or ten of you move in the same direction, inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit and the founder’s clearly articulated and personally delivered vision. As you grow to 50 people, 300 people and maybe beyond, you inevitably become increasingly removed from day-to-day operations. And it’s always a surprise the first time you realize how much you don’t know.

The farther away from the front line you get, the harder it is to know whether your vision is understood and executed in the way you actually envisioned it. You’re no longer at street level talking to customers about their real experience doing business with you. And you haven’t had time to check lately on whether your culture supports continuous innovation or allows you to deliver on your promise.

Put simply, operational excellence is taking exceptional care of your customers and employees—and committing to continuous innovation. When there’s no longer time to be involved in every aspect of operations, how to you meet the challenges that ensure excellence?

Balance your air and ground games

In his Inc. Magazine article, “The Two Games Every Startup Plays,” (April 2014), Eric Paley describes two complementary games, air and ground. The more romantic air game is the “emotional narrative of how your startup revolutionizes a market,” and the enthusiasm you build for your long-term potential. The air game relates to your vision.

The “much uglier ground game,” applies to execution and operations; it’s the “nasty elements, such as falling short of milestones, founder conflicts, people getting fired, and missing quarterly numbers” that keep you from living up to the expectations you set for your organization. Paley points out that, with growth, the ground game becomes your focus as you overcome the overwhelming obstacles related to operations.

You can’t succeed without being good at both air and ground games. As Paley so aptly advises: “Inspire people with your company’s lofty long-term vision, but set near-term goals that are ambitious but achievable … never forget that your success as a company will ultimately come down to how well you execute. It’s a difficult balance–underestimate either game and you’re likely to lose both.”

Making excellence a habit

The reality is that, one way or another, your business operates every day. Unless it’s a commonly-held vision that drives you, you may not be moving in the direction you intended. How do you protect the vision—and entrepreneurial spirit—that moved you to risk founding a company in the first place while you play the ground game?

If you look back a few thousand years to Aristotle, you’ll find some helpful insight. Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Begin your habit by communicating your vision often. Employees who don’t hear the big picture directly from the source may not understand exactly what it means or how it should play out. They need both clear understanding and inspiration to successfully play the air game—and they can only get that from leadership.

To excel at the ground game, employees must understand the kind of behavior that’s expected of them. They need to see what respect feels like; what accountability and alignment look like; and what giving service means in your organization. The bigger you grow, the less opportunity they have to get that information by watching leaders. You can cover that base by making it a habit to recognize people for behavior that models your vision, values and definition of operational excellence. Reward amazing behavior.

Once you’re past startup, you can’t possibly be involved in every aspect of your business. Make it a priority—and a habit—to be the coach of both your air and ground games so that your vision and operations work together to create the reality you originally intended.

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