Good Work: A Dose of Reality

Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.  -M. Scott Peck
One of the regional phone companies regularly hosts a two day conference with groups of customers.  The customers are subjected to a few sales pitches, but the heart of the conference is the formal and informal time that the executive team spends listening to the complaints, needs, and hopes of their customers.  In addition to live feedback, there are online customer feedback management services that allow organizations to manage user suggestions and complaints. Retailers use secret shoppers to measure customer service.
When I was a public school superintendent our school board opened every meeting by taking public comment.  A few times a year we listened to students describe what they like and what they would like to change about their schools.
Whether fourth graders, shoppers or phone users, customers are brutally honest.  It can be a painful undressing for executives and public officials that otherwise are encouraged to believe by well intentioned support staff that everything is rosy.  Most organizations are simply not honest about their current reality.  Lacking the feedback mechanisms that keep their ears to the ground and their eyes on the horizon, they over rate themselves, under rate the current competition, and ignore the potential threats of the future.
The inability to self-diagnosis will always leave room for consultants if for nothing else than to bring an outside perspective to the table.  Our school district had a “critical friend,” a consultant that comes to visit three or four times each year to listen in on and lead conversations about teaching and learning.  His visits were a our “dedication to reality at all costs.”
Mission-driven organizations are susceptible to avoiding market realities.  One benefit of the shift to ‘strategic philanthropy’ over the last decade is common requirement of using outside consultants to develop sustainable business plans.  (The downside is that philanthropy os far less responsive.)
A consultant at heart, I enjoy the challenge of sizing up a complicated situation.  It’s rewarding if new understanding becomes available for others to improve their performance.  But it’s more painful sizing up our own behavior and accepting candid feedback.  Organizations are a lot like people when it comes to self-evaluation.  It is hardest to tell yourself the truth.
Don’t wait for a performance appraisal from your boss.  Set high expectations for your own performance.  Be your own harshest critic.  Ask your peers for honest feedback.  Be honest about your own performance, thoughtful about how your actions affect others, and first to point out opportunities to improve.  Be humble.  Be honest.  Plan to improve.  Follow through.
Good Work is a Sunday series about finding and doing mission-driven work.  

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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