Taking Personal Responsibility for Excellence Is a Selfish Act

Photograph of Larry Johnson, Professional Speaker, Author, and Corporate Culture Expert

In my travels as a consultant and trainer, I stay in lots of hotels and therefore eat lots of room service meals. After completing my dinner one evening at a well-known hotel, I did what the room service waiters always tell you to do – put my tray in the hall outside the door.

The next morning my bill had been slipped under the door, along with a newspaper. After picking up the bill and the paper, I opened the door and stepped right into my room service tray.

When I thought about it, the person who brought the bill and the newspaper during the night must have moved the tray out of the way, slipped the bill and newspaper under the door, and then replaced the tray so I could step in it the next morning. And if it even crossed his mind that he might pick up the tray and take it back to the kitchen, what do you suppose was his next thought?

You guessed it: “It’s not my job.”

Compare that with a story I was told while presenting a seminar on customer service to the employees of Disneyland:

Rick, a maintenance engineer at the park, was making some electrical repairs in front of the Disneyland hotel. A family on their way from the hotel to the park asked Rick for the location of the tram station. They didn’t speak English very well, so after a few frustrating minutes of trying to explain how to get to the tram station, Rick stopped what he was doing and escorted them there. Not his job, but he did it gladly.

But Rick didn’t stop there. While escorting the family to the station, they told him that it was their daughter’s seventh birthday, and this trip to Disneyland was her birthday present.

Upon his return to the hotel, Rick went to the concierge of the hotel and arranged to have a large, stuffed Mickey Mouse toy, and a birthday cake with the girl’s name on it placed in the family’s room to greet them when they returned from the park – thus creating what the Disney folks like to call a “Disney Magical Moment” for the guest.

I call that taking personal responsibility for excellence.

We all know of great companies that have reputations for excellence: Nordstrom Department Stores, Disney, Lands End, Merck Pharmaceuticals to name a few. Many books and articles have been written in the past 20 years, trying to identify the factors that such companies have in common. Focus on the customer, obsession with quality, innovation, and savvy marketing are some that are often named. I believe, however, that it starts with each person in the organization taking personal responsibility for excellence at the day-to-day level.

Whether it be going the extra mile for a customer, pitching in to help your team meet a production goal, or noticing an environmental hazard and taking action to fix it – it is each person’s willingness to take personal responsibility for excellence that can make any company the “Disney” of the their industry.

Of course, this all comes as part of the company’s culture. Is it one where people are rewarded and celebrated for going the extra mile like Rick did? Or is a culture where Rick would have been reprimanded for leaving his post and doing something that’s not his official “job?” And, of course, that all depends on how the leadership of the organization sets the tone around such behavior.

Nordstrom Department stores is renown for its policy of accepting returns without question. When asked how he encourages his employees to do this, co founder Bruce Nordstrom replied that each employee’s primary responsibility is to “Use his or her good judgment.”

“Why,” you might ask then, “is taking personal responsibility for excellence a selfish act?” Well, when everyone pitches in, work gets done on time, customers’ complaints get fixed faster, accident rates decline, and the company is more profitable – and that translates into job security and prosperity for everyone, including you. So taking personal responsibility for excellence is, in a way, a selfish act.

It’s also a way to make the world a better place because acts of excellence tend to inspire others to do the same. For example, a few years ago, I was rushing to catch a plane and just barely made it before they shut the door. It was only when we were taxiing on the runway that I realized I had left my wallet in the rental car. Without thinking, I said “Oh, sh_t,” to which an elderly lady sitting next to me replied, “I beg your pardon.”

Embarrassed, I apologized profusely for my vulgarity and explained that I’d left my wallet in my rental car and was in a bind because I had to get to a speaking engagement as soon as the plane landed in Dallas. I didn’t know what to do. Without saying a word, she reached into her purse and handed me a $20 bill. Even more embarrassed, I refused, saying I couldn’t possibly accept her money, to which he asked, “Well, what are you going to do then?”

She had a point. So I acquiesced and accepted her help, insisting that she give me her address so I could repay her when I got home. To this she refused and when I asked why, she replied, “Well, first of all, you’re a stranger, and I don’t give my address out to strangers. Also, I don’t want you to pay me back. Just give it to someone you see in need when time arises.”

Ever since then, when I see someone in need and think, “that really not my problem, I remember the generosity this lady showed me. And even if costs me $20 or more the joy I receive from doing so is always worth so much more than the money spent.

So the next time you see an opportunity to go out of your way to pitch in on the job or in your life, be selfish – and just do it.

© 2012 Larry Johnson. All rights reserved