No more mediocrity

Set and enforce high expectations

Lee Thayer is an 89-year-old leadership guru based in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina.

His Wisconsin claim to fame is he helped Ralph Stayer mastermind the transformation of Johnsonville Sausage in the 1980s and ’90s.


It’s important that you know about him because he has an approach to working with people and developing a growth organization that precludes falling into the mediocrity that befalls the good intentions of leaders.

Thayer says most of our companies perform at a significantly worse level than their potential because we don’t set and enforce high expectations our people can meet. And we don’t practice effective leadership techniques.

Here’s a sampling of what Thayer preaches:

1. Define and demonstrate your cause in all you do.

It’s the emotional, engaging, aspirational higher purpose for which your company exists. It might be external, like providing a service that makes people’s lives better. Or internal, like being the best place where a person can spend up to 10 hours a day. Or developmental, like helping people be the best they can be.

Everyone should know your cause. It’s why they work for you. Tell it through stories of what success will look like, chapter by chapter.

The next factor in effective leadership is your character – who you are. Are you a role model or worthy of being a leader?

The third element is clarity, setting expectations of what you want and what people need to do, starting with the “why.”

2. Hire only people who are committed to being world-class in their jobs.

Even the receptionist in a small Milwaukee company can be world-class at being a receptionist and run a welcoming lobby for visitors.

During the job interview, explain how the best receptionist or “lobby CEO” operates. Ask the candidates to commit to your expectations before you hire. They’ll be surprised. But it will establish the foundation for every assignment going forward.

3. Tell new hires to establish goals.

Not the short-term “get this done” goals, but the aspirational ones expected of world-class performers.

4. Have each new employee develop a learning plan.

Ask each employee to identify what he or she needs to learn this year to help move toward his or her aspirational goals. This sets in place the “continuous learner” mentality that lets employees be more effective.

The organization should learn the competencies of each job and require employees to learn them. When they do, achievement is normal and natural.

Become a virtuoso question-asker. Questions keep topics open and foster creative thinking and new ideas. Use them for brainstorming and learning. Statements shut down thinking and learning and stop innovation. Use them when you’re moving toward a decision.

5. Require each person to think in an anticipative way.

What could go wrong? What else does he need to know to counteract a problem or to be ready for his next assignment?

Requiring this forces a person to be ready for much of the unexpected, so the problem becomes a non-issue. The problem doesn’t “have” you. You have it.

This sends a message that no one will be promoted until she has proven competence at the various elements of the next job. You won’t promote people who you hope have the necessary skills to learn on the job. Have a formal process to develop them so they can be promoted when they’re ready.

6. Never be the ‘monkey.’

The leader owns only those problems, which only the leader can deal with. All others are owned by someone else whose goals are related to yours. Whoever owns a problem is responsible for the solution. Neither can be transferred, delegated or avoided.

7. Always be the ‘meaning-maker.’

Thayer says meaning is everything, and a trap. A leader must not buy into the “meanings” of others unless they move toward achieving the cause.

For every significant event, immediately give it meaning in a way that aligns it with the cause.

These are some of Thayer’s techniques that keep you from leading a mediocre organization. His major contribution is to help a leader think about leading. You can learn more from his books, “Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing,” “The Competent Organization” and “How Leaders Think.”

-Phil Hauck chairs three TEC CEO groups in the Green Bay area.

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