On High Standards (Part 2)

Yesterday, I shared two takeaways related to high standards based on a few recent podcasts.

  1. It’s okay to have high standards and to hold people to them.
  2. A prerequisite is to hold yourself to an even higher set of standards.

On Facebook, a friend pointed out an important missing piece—people are human. I think it’s worth expanding on this point quite a bit. Otherwise, one might assume that it’s okay to set a sky-high bar and act like a tyrant driving people in that direction giving no slack or breathing room for adjustments.

Let’s all agree that’s not ideal.

Here are a few additional caveats to the above takeaways:

These high standards should be developed alongside the people that will be upholding them in service of a goal we all agree on. When a team has a voice in setting the goals, they feel far more ownership than if the goals were just passed down the chain.

How you deal with failure matters. In Measure What Matters, John Doer talks about the OKR framework Google and other teams use for setting goals. They assume a 70-80% completion rate. If a team completes 100% of their work for a quarter, the goals weren’t ambitious enough.

A team/individual falling short of a goal or a standard is a critical inflection point. If you drop the hammer, it’s understood that falling short is not acceptable, and teammates will be reluctant to stretch in the future. As Steven Pressfield notes, compassion is an unlimited resource.

Extreme ownership applies here too. When a team member falls short, it’s not their fault. It’s your fault. You could’ve checked in with them earlier. You could’ve explained the goal in better detail. You could’ve offered to chip in.

With those caveats in mind, here’s how I would expand the original two takeaways:

  1. It’s okay to have high standards and to hold people to them. This works when the standards are defined alongside the people upholding them in service to a goal everyone agrees on.
  2. When people fall short, remember compassion is an unlimited resource. Don’t blame them; own the situation.
  3. A prerequisite to holding others to a high standard is to hold yourself to an even higher set of standards.

A Few Related Thoughts on High Standards

After some discussion on this post, I wrote a follow-up post here—On High Standards (Part 2). It expands on some elements this post misses.

While traveling to New York, I recently listened to two podcasts related to high standards.

First, I listened to the interview with Dave Castro (Director of the CrossFit Games) on the Pursuing Health podcast. As the host describes in the interview, Castro is a polarizing figure within the CrossFit space. He’s well-known for having exceptionally high standards for his team and holding them to those standards.

I hold people to a really high standard, and you can’t hold people to a really high standard if you don’t hold yourself to a really high standard.

Dave Castro

He goes on to discuss his time in the military, which informed many of his views on team and individual performance, which brings me to the other podcast I revisited during my trip.

Jocko Willink is well known for his podcast, Jocko Podcast, which offers leadership tactics through the lens of the military. I’ve listened to one episode multiple times in particular—“Set Standards. Aspire to Achieve Them. Become an Eminently Qualified Human.” The episode walks through the Marine Corp Overall Fitness Assessment.

This document embodies the idea of having high standards. Let’s look at the rating scale for “Performance”:

Meets requirements of billet and additional duties. Aptitude, commitment, and competence meet expectations. Results maintain status quo.

Sounds solid, right? That’s one of the lowest possible rankings. Here’s the top (bold added by me for emphasis):

Results far surpass expectations. Recognizes and exploits new resources; creates opportunities. Emulated; sought after as an expert with influence beyond unit. Impact significant; innovative approaches to problems produce significant gains in quality and efficiency.

That’s an incredibly high bar! At the end of the assessment, they provide this chart:

Courtesy of the NAVMC 10835 Assessment Form

The takeaway is clear—very few should be correctly graded at the top of the pyramid. Most professionals will fall in the middle of the pack.

Summarizing the two big takeaways I had listening to these two podcasts together:

  1. It’s okay to have high standards and to hold people to them.
  2. A prerequisite is to hold yourself to an even higher set of standards.

Four Questions Worth Asking

In a recent episode of his podcast, Tim Ferriss recounted a discussion he had with executive coach Jerry Colonna. In that discussion, Colonna mentioned four powerful questions that I feel are worth keeping top of mind:

  • How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?
  • What needs to be said that isn’t being said?
  • What’s being said that I’m not hearing?
  • What am I saying that’s not being heard?

In particular, the first question has been rattling around in my head quite frequently whether I’m thinking about a situation at work or when our two-year-old refuses to eat dinner. It’s helpful in framing the “extreme ownership” philosophy popularized by Jocko Willink.

Photo courtesy of Tim.blog