Excellence is your next email”

In an inter­view with Daniel Pink, lead­er­ship guru Tom Peters says “excel­lence is your next email.”

Peters is known for say­ing, “Excel­lence is the next five min­utes.” That’s true, too.

The point of his com­ment is that it’s com­mon to believe excel­lence is some huge kind of feat. In oth­er words, our default is to believe excel­lence requires enor­mous plan­ning, prepa­ra­tion, and per­se­ver­ance. The truth is excel­lence starts with how you approach all the mico-deci­sions in your life and work. This includes seem­ing­ly mun­dane deci­sions like com­mu­ni­cat­ing with our cowork­ers and how we main­tain our envi­ron­ment.

Excel­lence starts with how you approach all the mico-deci­sions in your life and work

Josh Mitchell

Peters con­tin­ues: “In a five line email, you reveal every sin­gle impor­tant ele­ment of your per­son­al­i­ty and view of life.” Peters remarks to Dan that they both know this is true.

Cue it up to 10:50 to hear Tom Peter’s riff on “Excel­lence is...”

When life and work get crazy, spend­ing time to thought­ful­ly craft a mes­sage in writ­ing requires focus and think­ing. We resist high­er lev­el think­ing and rea­son­ing. We want to achieve the end goal with­out deal­ing with the messy mid­dle.

As you reflect on your work, do you approach micro-actions with any lev­el of excel­lence?

Excel­lent email writ­ing does­n’t have to look super fan­cy or be “Eng­lish on stilts.” It does­n’t mean you have to start have all the cor­rect gram­mar and punc­tu­a­tion (key word start). It means you have con­sid­er your read­er and the issue at hand. It means paus­ing and think­ing about the ques­tions some­one might have when they read your writ­ing. It means car­ing for oth­ers: show­ing empa­thy and con­nec­tion.

What are you reveal­ing about your per­son­al­i­ty when you send an email?

What are you reveal­ing about your view of life when you share your writ­ing?

Peters’ obser­va­tion rings true for me. Many of my cowork­ers and col­leagues reveal so much about their val­ues in the way they write. Some take the time to write thought­ful, clear words. This earns trust. Oth­ers spew out infor­ma­tion onto the screen. This caus­es frus­tra­tion and extra work.

Have you con­sid­ered how you can spread excel­lence in your micro-actions?

How the way we end conversations leads to confusion or action

Have you ever worked with some­one who uses con­fu­sion and com­plex­i­ty and avoids action? Instead of fig­ur­ing out the next thing to do, they talk about how big a prob­lem is. Instead of tak­ing action, they freeze.

I had a work col­league that used this tac­tic. In crit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions, she would talk at length about many dif­fer­ent angles of an issue. We would dis­cuss the ten­sions that caused a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem but rarely reached a solu­tion. She would con­clude these unpro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions with a sig­na­ture phrase “yeah, isn’t this com­pli­cat­ed?”

Yeah, isn’t this com­pli­cat­ed” is a way of say­ing, this sit­u­a­tion is over­whelm­ing, I don’t know what to do. It’s a way of say­ing, “the work we are doing takes effort, but I don’t want to do any­thing.”. Instead of fig­ur­ing out an action plan and doing stuff, yeah, it’s com­pli­cat­ed was a way of avoid­ing move­ment.

Avoiding movement

Avoid move­ment is safe. No action buys us time. We don’t have to face ten­sions with peo­ple and do the dif­fi­cult emo­tion­al work of decid­ing.

Moving toward action: how to end conversations with helpful phrases

Instead of leav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion con­fused, we should seek clar­i­ty. I like Bre­nee Brown’s phrase: “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” We must define and cre­ate projects, not com­plain about prob­lems. We can orga­nize our projects by decid­ing who owns it, decid­ing who is going to take the next step, and by when. It takes a lit­tle more effort, but the end result is a much.

Here are some helpful questions that may help you end conversations toward clarity:

  1. Who owns this?
  2. How will we know if this is a suc­cess?
  3. What does suc­cess look like to you?
  4. How can I help?
  5. What do you want me to do?

A cog in the system

Nobody wants to be a mean­ing­less cog in the sys­tem.

It is reli­able. It gets the job done. It’s strong and does­n’t let its per­son­al­i­ty get in the way. It does­n’t com­plain. It sup­ports the sys­tem and the big­ger machine to pro­duce a man­u­fac­tured end result. And it works — over and over again.

In lead­er­ship, we DO have a lot of “sys­tems” — each of our teams have unique com­plex­i­ties and things to — but we do not want to treat or think of our team mem­bers as cogs in the sys­tem. 

Your role as a leader is to remind peo­ple that we’re not just doing a bunch of “things” but we’re a part of some­thing much big­ger than our selves. Love them when they don’t get the job done. Help them when they’re weak and their per­son­al­i­ty is spew­ing every­where. 

Don’t get me wrong: tasks need to get done and there must be a stan­dard of excel­lence.

Ques­tion to pon­der: How can you remind peo­ple that they’re not a cog and show them that they mat­ter?

What are ways we can love and lead peo­ple?

The power of checklists

This may sound obvi­ous, but it turns out that check­lists are a super pow­er­ful tool for get­ting things right. I heard a great inter­view about the pow­er of check­lists in hos­pi­tals on NPR — if you’re inter­est­ed check it out here:

For each of our areas, I want us to think about cre­at­ing some great check­lists that allow us to cre­ate “I’m com­ing back” expe­ri­ences for every guest, each week, regard­less of vol­un­teers. 

Atul Gawande explains in his book The Check­list Man­i­festo that there are two kinds of check­lists: (1) DO-CONFIRM (2) READ-DO

A per­son or team per­forms the work, then review the check­list to con­firm all of the steps were exe­cut­ed. If not, the pause the check­list pro­vides is a chance to get right what was­n’t.

These check­lists are more like recipes. They are slow­er to exe­cute but you go down each item line by line and DO the item before mov­ing on. 


  • Usu­al­ly no longer than 9 items (in line with how much the human brain can remem­ber)
  • Leave out things that are implied 
  • Word­ing should be sim­ple and exact
  • Use famil­iar lan­guage of the area
  • It should fit on one page
  • Free of clut­ter and unnec­es­sary col­or
  • Uses upper and low­er­case type for read­abil­i­ty 
  • Tweak and per­fect the check­list as issues arise

Check­lists allow us to not rely on one per­son or even our own brain. Put sim­ply, check­lists become our exter­nal brain that we can rely and trust to remem­ber what needs to hap­pen.

Check­lists allow us to grow our teams and train new mem­bers how to do a role. 

Check­lists allow us to be able to take a day off and not wor­ry about what needs to hap­pen!

Check­lists allow us to make great first impres­sions.

Check­lists pave the way for con­sis­ten­cy. 

I am going to work on some start­ing point check­lists for each of us to con­sid­er for our areas — but I’d also encour­age you to be think­ing about what needs to hap­pen each week and putting that into a sim­ple, con­cise check­list for your area. Look­ing for­ward to see­ing you all soon! I’d love to sched­ule a lead­ers-only meet­ing and check in with every­one to see how you’re doing and areas where you might need help.

Communicate early and often

I’ve expe­ri­enced it and I’m sure you have too. You’re get­ting close to a dead­line for a project and you’re wait­ing on 12 essen­tial details to com­plete every­thing. 

You’re so close to the dead­line that hav­ing any con­ver­sa­tions or com­mu­ni­ca­tion will KEEP you from com­plet­ing the project

So what do you do? 

You skip them... and get to work. 

Seri­ous­ly though... who has time to com­mu­ni­cate ear­ly and often when you have a dead­line to meet? 

It’s eas­i­er to go silent and com­mu­ni­cate less when there’s a big event or dead­line right around the cor­ner. How­ev­er, one of the strate­gic behav­iors I want all of us to con­sid­er as lead­ers is this:

We communicate EARLY and OFTEN.

Part 1: Com­mu­ni­cat­ing EARLY

This means we talk about stuff while we can still make plen­ty of adjust­ments. When you com­mu­ni­cate late, there’s often no time left to make changes. On Nov 13, I wrote about how we plan in advance so that ‘lack of time’ is nev­er an issue. Around CFC, we don’t want to fall into the “I did­n’t have enough time” trap. That’s not a good excuse! By com­mu­ni­cat­ing ear­ly, we can keep each oth­er in the loop before it is too late.

When you com­mu­ni­cate ear­ly... you can let your team know about stuff while there’s still time to fig­ure out key details and oth­er solu­tions. 

When you com­mu­ni­cate ear­ly... you allow time for prop­er plan­ning. See my post from Nov 13 for more plan­ning tips and tricks: https://public.3.basecamp.com/p/HonuXbbxWwdGMvnDsXg1nJXG

Part 2: Com­mu­ni­cat­ing OFTEN

This just means we’re in the pat­tern of a con­sis­tent con­ver­sa­tion — not a irreg­u­lar mono­logue

So far my per­son­al attempts to achieve this have been:

  • Month­ly vol­un­teer train­ing meet­ings (Sat­ur­days) 
  • Weekly(ish) posts here in Base­camp (like this one)

But I’m sure there’s more I could do and that we could all do... 

Next steps...

  • What, if any­thing, do you have to com­mu­ni­cate that would be bet­ter for your team to know SOONER than lat­er?
  • How often have you com­mu­ni­cat­ed? 
  • What can we do bet­ter to make sure com­mu­ni­ca­tion is hap­pen­ing EARLY and OFTEN?

Some write, others talk

It can be easy to think that oth­er peo­ple in your life learn and process things the same way you do.

For some, writ­ing is a great way to fig­ure things out. It’s a process that allows a per­son to get their thoughts on a page, see if they agree with them, and make changes until it reflects what they actu­al­ly think.

For oth­ers, writ­ing is an awful way to fig­ure things out. They’re not real­ly sure what they think until they can have a few con­ver­sa­tions and debates until they under­stand what they think.

It does­n’t mat­ter how you fig­ure things out. It’s impor­tant you know which one best serves you. It will bet­ter serve oth­ers.