You Can’t Be Everything to Everybody

Last month I had the biggest of honor of my professional career when Tri County Tech accepted the Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award. The award is the highest Presidential Award for performance excellence in the nation. The award was the culmination of thirteen years of dedication and discipline that has allowed our organization to transform thousands of lives in our community.

As a recipient of the honor, we joined four other organizations from across the nation in Washington D.C. to share our best practices with those who aspire to create an organization committed to performance excellence. We joined Donor Alliance, Denver, Colorado; Alamo Colleges District, San Antonio, Texas; Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center, Jasper, Indiana; and Integrated Project Management Company, Inc., Burr Ridge, Illinois. Each organization is unique, but the one thing that we all have in common is an unwavering commitment to excellence and an emotional connection because of our journeys. The stories we shared proved that no matter where an organization is on this journey that collective perseverance to quality could help them achieve world-class results.

Tri County Tech shared many stories, best practices, and we revealed five mantras that emerged over our thirteen-year journey. While each one is powerful, there was one that brought clarity to our organization – “When you try to be everything to everybody, you can’t be anything to anybody.” Easier said than done, right?

Whether you apply the mantra to an organization or your personal life, there is a significant upside. Also, like any opportunity that has the potential for upside, it is hard. Letting go of things even when we know we will be better off for it is difficult to do. Often the decision to let go of things affects customers, agendas, and in some cases, the livelihoods of people, which makes those difficult decisions all the more challenging.

All too often, organizations are willing to endure the agony of the status quo to avoid being uncomfortable for a brief time. As Jim Collins put it, “The enemy of great is good.”

Early in our journey, we found ourselves saying “yes’ to everything – “we never met an idea we didn’t like,” which is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes, we find ourselves doing the same in our personal lives. We say “yes” to everything. Why are we opposed to saying no when at the very moment the words come out of our mouth, we feel regret?

The key to our organization’s success was our willingness to say “no.” While we recognized we had some ineffective/inefficient programs and services our first step was not to start anything new without it first passing a rigorous set of criteria — the result of saying no allowed us to focus on what we could do best. We later applied a similar set of principles to existing processes, programs and services. By using a set of beliefs, it helped to take the emotion out of the decisions. Of course, the choices were still tricky because they often affected people, but in the end, allowed for more time and resources to go toward what mattered most.

As a result, our organization is the only public institution ever to be named as a Great Place to Work® and the Baldrige Award recipient simultaneously. Of course, it took more than saying “no” to mediocrity it took saying “yes” to risk, “yes” to success and “yes” to a vision that would help to transform the lives of the students we serve.

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