Operational Excellence

Two weeks ago, I told you that the letter had written itself. Today’s letter most certainly didn’t. I have struggled. There are successes and joy in the world. There is tragedy. There is the additional complication that it is always so, and so the fact that we are all acutely aware of it in this week speaks to an unequal world.

This letter was written with much deleting, with many stops and starts. I hope that you find something in it.

In the last week, Cape Town’s establishments have been getting much global love. Sivu Nobongoza’s Yobo Wine and Whiskey Bar was featured in Forbes Magazine and Bree Street’s Rosetta Roastery was showcased in FT’s article, The Best Independent Coffee Shops in the World.

My joy at their success took me to the vibrancy of Kenyan photographer, Thandiwe Muriu. In South Africa, Ed Suter’s work inspires similar happiness as does Haneem Christian’s work The Lover, which recently won the Pride Photo Award.

Nobongoza’s and the Rosetta team’s successes had me thinking about operational excellence, so that’s where we start today.


Widened knowledge unlocks possibilities. Vision energises, enabling us to take intentional action. Strategy clarifies what needs to be done. And, as Yobo and Rosetta show us, excellent execution builds success. We need to do all of it to live meaningful lives and build effective organisations.

In Beyond Entrepreneurship, Jim Collins and Bill Lazier write “Building a great company is similar to writing a great novel—you need an overall conception (vision), a plot (strategy), and creative ideas to move the plot along. You also must sweat over each sentence, executing the book word-by-word, line-by-line, page-by-page. Hemingway was once asked why he’d rewritten the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. He responded simply, ‘Getting the words right’.”

What needs to be done to ‘get the words right’? First, take note of what Collins and Lazier say shouldn’t be done – “If you want mediocrity, take people for granted, show no appreciation, and treat them like peons” and, in contrast, “Great companies are built on a foundation of respect. They respect their customers, they respect themselves, they respect their relationships. Most important, they respect their people— people at all levels, and from all backgrounds.”

More pragmatically they suggest that you ensure that everyone has a copy of the vision, strategy, and the strategic objectives for the year in front of them at all times. That makes sense. How can you achieve excellence if you don’t know where you’re going?

Then, identify the specific, methodical, and consistent actions that make a difference in your business. Ensure that everyone understands what they must do, why they do it that way, and that they do indeed do them. That’s how you build momentum. As James Clear puts it in Atomic Habits, “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems”. And a ‘system’ is simply the web of specific actions that, when implemented, consistently deliver results.

In Great by Choice, Collins and Morten Hansen, introduce the metaphor of the 20 Mile March. In summary, companies that outperform their peer group strive for consistency. They resist the temptation to charge ahead when the going is good, or to slack off when it’s tough. They strive each day to do the specific, methodical, and consistent actions that build their businesses.

Back to Collins and Lazier; there are five basic conditions under which people execute well:

  • When they’re clear on what they need to do.
  • If they have the right skills for the job (which importantly also includes temperament)
  • If they’re given freedom AND support.
  • When they’re appreciated for their efforts.
  • If they see the importance of their work.

They say that creating an environment of consistent tactical excellence is a six-part, mutually reinforcing, never-ending process:

  • Hiring: “Good people attract good people”.
  • Inculturating. Write down your company’s story. Share it with all new hires. It helps ensure that people are aligned with the values of the organisation.
  • Training. They note that “many smaller companies complain that they don’t have the resources to do training. We ask them: how can you possibly expect to be a great company without it?”
  • Goal-setting: “Stop. Think for a minute. Does every employee in your company have specific goals? Did he take the primary role in creating them? Does he believe they’re achievable? Does he want to achieve them? Has he translated these goals into quarterly goals, weekly tasks, and daily activities? Do the goals dovetail with the company’s vision and strategy? Do the goals fit with his personal ambitions in life?”
  • Measuring
  • Appreciating.

Last, ensure a consistent flow of relevant information. You can only expect your teams to do well if they can see the impact of their performance and the context in which they’re operating. Share as much information as possible.


Brené Brown is a globally acclaimed author and speaker. Her work is about the power of vulnerability. In her impact, she is the very epitome of vision combined with operational excellence.

In a New Yorker piece, Brené Brown’s Empire of Emotion, Sarah Larson describes that Brown’s key insight has been that connection is the essence of the human experience, but that shame – ‘the feeling that some quality prevents us being worthy of love’ – stops us from connecting. And, that the way through the shame was vulnerability, being open to knowing ourselves, letting others know us, accepting and telling our story, imperfections, and all.

Brené Brown wasn’t always THE Brené Brown. Brown grew up in a home where her parents fought a lot. Her strategic, pattern-making skills were first forged in the fire of spotting impending conflict and removing herself and her siblings. Remembering her childhood neighbourhood, she says “Every one of those houses has a story that would bring you to your knees. Addiction, suicide, violence. It was never what everyone was making it out to be.”

After school, she headed to Europe and worked menial jobs as she traveled across the continent. She reflects that “It was completely out of control. Self-destructive, terrible. That I’m alive is, like—yeah.”

She eventually completed her undergraduate degree when she was thirty. Whilst doing her master’s she went to an AA meeting where a sponsor ‘suggested that she stop drinking, smoking, emotional eating, and trying to control her family’s crises’. She’s been sober ever since.

Larson writes that “Sobriety helped her (Brown) understand the instinct to ‘take the edge off’ as a desire to numb and control emotions.” By connecting with that emotion, by being vulnerable to it she was able to reclaim the fullness of her life.

Early in her career, her husband asked her what her dream was, and she said, “I want to start a global conversation about vulnerability and shame.” She’s done that.

Brown’s work tells us that the first step to a happy life is connection to others and to ourselves. That we often don’t take that step because we don’t feel worthy to do so. That counter-intuitively we find the bravery to connect by being open, first to our own experience, by being vulnerable to it, to being open to possibility and then through sharing it with others, to connecting.

Her life shows us that we can start at any point and that our history (and understanding it) can be rich fuel for who we become, as long as we are intentional and act with vision.


I had wanted to leave you with Collins and Lazier’s words “A person with purpose will never be at a loss for meaningful work.” That seemed like a neat end to today’s letter. However, earlier in the week a beloved friend initiated a conversation with me about this current moment. He asked whether I would be writing about it. My response was that I didn’t know how to, nor did I believe I had anything to say that would add to the myriad of far more skilled and knowledgeable voices out there. As the dialogue unfolded, he kept gently nudging me away from the political to the human experience. He wrote, “The world is a sadder more hopeless place to navigate. That’s where you come in.” And so, here we are…

I have rewritten this closing many times, I am still not sure that it says what it needs to, but I felt that if I was to take Brown’s adage of being vulnerable seriously, then I needed to share these tentative words with you.

My heart breaks when I read the reports of families decimated by war. Then, I think of all the other peoples who die in war and poverty, whose stories are never told, and anger swirls into the heartbreak. I am impressed with the alacrity with which the world has moved into action and then am depressed that it hasn’t done so for so long, and in many cases never does. It becomes overwhelming. Sadness and anger pulse alongside each other.

My compassion for the people of Ukraine is complicated by my anger for the silences, the disregard for other people. Woven into this is despair, despair that our world is this way, despair that it is not only war that robs people of their lives and hope, despair also that so much of what is accepted as the ‘way it is’, should be the subject of coordinated action and yet often isn’t.

Yet one need not replace the other. I remind myself that what I must do is intentionally hold all people, indeed all beings, in my heart. To remember that in the moments that we’re moved to compassion, we must pause to wonder who else needs our thoughts and our actions, and intentionally expand our consciousness to include them. That we might strive to ensure that our love, compassion, and intentional action extends through the web of life, to all people’s, all beings, all life.

I found some guidance in Martin Luther King Jnr’s words “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.”

As I end it strikes me that this letter inadvertently has some of the cadences of a Loving-Kindness meditation. First, you open yourself to receiving love. Then, you send love. First to those you love and then progressively to all people and all beings. In that spirit, I wish for you, that you may be safe, that you may be healthy, that you may live with ease and happiness.

That’s me for today…


PS: You can subscribe to this letter here. My coaching practice is fully booked until the end of May. If you do want to work with me, please reach out. I am able to do an introductory conversation with you in April and we could start working together in June.

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