The Pursuit of Excellence: A Commitment to Consistent Best Practice


Christopher Kolade

It was very good news indeed for me to know, two or three years ago, that there exists a Cadbury Nigeria Alumni Association whose principal aim is to create opportunities for its members to continue to share the values and principles that they experienced while serving as Managers in the company, Cadbury Nigeria plc. I found considerable joy in the fact that the Association wanted to include me in the circle that they had formed, believing that I might have played a small part in opening them to those positive experiences. The best news is the reality of this day – the occasion of the first annual lecture of the Association, and the fact that the members have carried out their threat to make me the speaker at this lecture. Let me say to the Alumni, simply and directly, that I am very, very happy to be here, and to regain my place as one of you, this time, at your invitation.

It should come as no surprise that I have chosen to speak on the theme – The Pursuit of Excellence – at this opening discourse. After all, that was the platform on which we did many things together, and it has sustained us even after we left the active service of the company. You will see that I have added a second part to the title, suggesting that the pursuit of excellence succeeds best when we are committed to consistent best practice in all that we do. I have even better news to share with you – you are not alone in the passion for the pursuit of excellence. Contrary to all the current negative rhetoric in this land, I have the good fortune of coming across groups of people, especially young people, who are quietly, but effectively, labouring in the pursuit of excellence.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a musical concert staged by the group known as the Lagos City Chorale. Their performance showed attributes of excellence that proved to everyone that they must have spent many hours in rehearsal before the public performance. No one was surprised to learn that they had won many international awards already, and were getting ready for another round of performances overseas. A few days ago, I also interacted with a group of young men and women with impressive credentials in modern communication technology. Right now, it is their aim to bring a substantial dose of excellence to the content and style of communication via the social media. The members of both groups had one thing in common: they were going ahead with their actions without any thought of receiving any personal material benefit from their endeavour.

I share those two experiences because they tell me that the pursuit of excellence is receiving practical expression in quite a few other places. The concept is no longer as strange or as rare as it once was. The continued commitment of members of the Cadbury Nigeria Alumni Association is an important way of reinforcing this wholesome trend. Indeed, I hold the firm view that the surest way of combating and defeating bad behaviour in our community is to strengthen good behaviour in all the places where we find it.

Excellence – the Concept: For many people, the first contact with the concept of excellence occurs when there is competition, at home or at school. Therefore, we begin by trying to do better than others, and this seems sufficient until we have to repeat one activity several times. When that happens, we find that we learn new things, and can progressively improve the skill with which we perform the task. This leads to a natural desire to improve the level of our achievement, and indeed, we may find that we produce results that fill us with considerable self-satisfaction. At this initial stage, however, we tend to work at skills improvement mainly because it helps us to stay ahead of other people. The by-product of that process is that we enjoy the fact that we achieve some growth in our ability to deliver results, and this may cause other people to accord us higher respect and greater admiration. In other words, until we come to a good level of maturity, our self-esteem tends to feed heavily on the external factor of recognition and praise from other people.

Question: Does this explain the tendency for some highly-placed people to crave popularity and adulation even when they have not done anything that has any relationship with excellence?

Excellence in Performance: As we grow up, the desire to do well should become a natural feature of our permanent behaviour, and we should develop our skills for this purpose, whether other people are looking or not. Because we are now more mature, we begin to take ownership of our own performance. Most of us hope we will be better people in the year 2018 than we are this year, and we are constantly seeking ways of achieving improvement in our performance. Indeed, we feel dissatisfied if we are not registering some discernible improvement. This is the stage at which we become progressively more critical of our own performance, and will go to great lengths to grow through learning, by engaging in serious study and self-development.

The Benefit of Experience: Of course, there are situations that encourage us to know that excellence in performance is achievable when we make the effort to pursue it. Study performance trends in sports, where we have a habit of encouraging COMPETITION and striving to set RECORDS as the standards that show the best that can be achieved. The practice is for each competitor to (a) try to win – i.e., do better than everyone else, and (b) set a new record – i.e., do better than has ever been done previously. Often, the sports person is trying to beat his own previous record: in other words, he is actually competing against himself! Indeed, a distinguished management expert has suggested that the most important race that we run in life is that which we run against ourselves. Another writer believes that excellence means when a person asks of himself more than others do.

The Imperative of Dedicated Preparation: One important thing to remember, when we discuss the exploits of successful sports men and women, as with musicians and other artistes, is that they do not come to excellence of performance except through dedicated planning, effort and many, many hours of practice. In pursuit of excellence in sports, there is now severe condemnation for those who try to improve their performance by using drugs that enable the attainment of false glory. The world of sports insists that athletes must strive to be people of consistent best practice. As Angela Duckworth reminds us, there are no shortcuts to true excellence.

Our view of excellence: For our discussion this morning, we are looking at excellence, not merely as the act of doing better than others. It must include also:
a) doing better that the norm (current accepted standard);
b) doing better than should be expected in the circumstances;
c) doing better than anyone has done previously.

We may also remind ourselves that excellence is not an abstract or impersonal concept; rather, it deserves our attention at this first annual lecture of the Cadbury Nigeria Alumni Association because members of the Association have spent the major part of their careers promoting the pursuit of excellence, and are eager to see many more people – indeed, the nation as a whole, become fellow-travellers on that edifying journey.

But, why? Another thought for this opening part of our discussion: why pursue excellence? Yes, indeed, we may find joy and satisfaction in doing progressively better in our work or business, but can we point to any additional justification for embarking on the drive to attain a level, a standard, which is higher than that which currently exists? Well, the additional – and perhaps, more important – reason is that the outcome of our effort should bring a valuable benefit to some other person or persons. In other words, there are stakeholders who have an interest, a need, or an expectation, which we are trying to satisfy. Particularly if we are engaged in the business of delivering goods or services to stakeholders, the quality of the outcome of our efforts is a key factor in the positive relationship that we must seek to establish with clients and customers.

Let us now take a closer look, and ask ourselves the question – When can we justifiably claim that we are truly engaged in the pursuit of excellence? Obviously, the “pursuit” cannot be a single, one-off action; it must be a journey that calls for the investment of time and sustained attention on the part of the one who is engaged in it. Indeed, Aristotle and other philosophers remind us that excellence is not an act: rather, it is a habit that develops into a way of life – the lifestyle – of the individual. For an organization, Azim Premji offers the thoughtful idea that excellence is a great starting point for any (new) organization, but also an unending journey.”

Pursuing the Interest of the Stakeholder: One writer has described excellence as the unlimited ability to improve the quality of what you have to offer. However it is wise to remember that the judgment as to the real quality of what we offer must be left to the beneficiary of what we produce – the one that we have referred to as the stakeholder. Only when the real needs, interests and expectations of the stakeholder are being met to his satisfaction can we claim that the outcome of our excellent performance has real value, and is fit-for-purpose.

Excellence and Morality: This need to give consideration to the interests and expectations of the stakeholder brings us face-to-face with the reality that the pursuit of excellence must be done ethically if it is to succeed. We cannot pursue true excellence unless we observe the fundamental principles of morality, principles which facilitate the ability of human beings to live and work successfully together in the promotion and management of issues that touch their shared interests. In pursuit of excellence, we would do well to remember the following, as some of the fundamental principles of morality:

– Never choosing deliberately to harm anyone;
– Always supporting our good intentions with credible arrangements for making them work;
– Making determined and credible efforts to keep our word;
– Never accepting a responsibility for which we do not intend to be held accountable;
– Always giving positive consideration to the interests of other people;
– Always offering the very best performance of which we are capable.

The Individual and Best Practice: At this point in our discussion, I expect that you are able to conclude – and rightly so – that there is nothing new in all that we have said so far.
The points that we have made are, on the whole, familiar to us, and we are often fortunate enough to see live examples of people and organizations that succeed in making the sustained effort to pursue true excellence. At the same time, we are bound to confess that excellence seems to elude us in some places where we have to work together to manage our shared interests. What this means is that, though each of us knows what is right, and has the desire to do it, we often fail because we do not pay combined attention to important matters. For example, we sometimes forget that our performance at any task is governed by three crucial factors, – – the values that we cherish,

– the standards to which we choose to perform, and
– the discipline that we practise in our personal and work life.
When our values are right, our standards high, and our self-discipline firm, we are more than likely to be, truly, apostles of best practice in whatever we do. And those of us who are members of one profession or the other, know that we have been trained to be committed apostles of best practice, with a dedicated focus on our obligations to our clients, and our duty to work for the integrity of the profession itself.

Professionals pursuing Excellence: From time to time in our nation, we witness the collapse of buildings that are in the process of construction. Putting up a building involves the collaboration of a number of professionals, and when the edifice collapses, it means that one or more of the professionals has not registered an excellent performance. For this negative occurrence to become commonplace is an undesirable reflection on the commitment of the professionals concerned to the pursuit of excellence, or their preference for best practice.

Sadly, this note about the construction of buildings is not the worst indication that the pursuit of excellence is not currently enjoying a good season in our nation. We could even say, from recent happenings in our country, that there is a clear desire to enthrone mediocrity and impose lower standards in places where we should be keeping in step with global trends for the promotion of higher standards of performance. How can we even begin to understand the change in policy that threatens to reduce the standard requirement for entry into university in Nigeria for aspiring students? It is already bad enough that some overseas universities will not admit graduates from our institutions to post-graduate study without screening them through an additional qualifying examination.

If, as we have said, the pursuit of excellence is the natural desire of normal people, what signal does the recent change in official policy send to the outside world where we yearn for greater recognition and respect?

Our tertiary educational system has been under siege for years now, with students being uncertain as to how long it may take to earn a degree. Here we are again, going through another season of strikes, not only in those public institutions, but also among the ranks of highly qualified professionals in the land. As far as we can tell, much of the trouble arises from the fact that these highly regarded employees and their employer do not trust one another. Neither side has any confidence that the other will fulfil the terms of agreement to which they append their signatures. When good faith departs, everyone looks bad! Indeed, as we can now testify, the constant practice of bad faith encourages even eminently qualified professionals to betray their commitment to best practice and professional excellence!

We should not be too embarrassed to mention the shortage of excellence in the quality of communication in governance, as we recall that, not too long ago, the nation’s President arrived back from overseas, and decided that he would work from home for a few days. Why did anyone have to explain that to us? The President’s home’’ in this context is only a few metres away from his office, and he, like you and me, is eminently free to decide where he will physically sit for the successful performance of his duties. Someone had to offer us the explanation that rodents had displaced our head of state from his exalted office space, for the maintenance of which the nation makes generous allocations of human and financial resources in every annual budget! Would the announcer of that information proudly display that to other members of his professional constituency as an example of best practice in edifying communication?
Are we fit for the pursuit of excellence? So far in this paper, we have discussed the fact that striving to do better should be instinctive for the normal human being. This is a fact that we have proved many times over in our history as a people. When we adopted the description of ourselves as good people, great nation, it was not an empty war cry; rather it was a statement of where we had been, and where, with divine grace and help, we can come to be again and again.

Starting with the family values that shape our development when we arrive as babies into this unknown world, the upbringing of children is driven by parental love of a quality that demonstrates true excellence. Not only do parents give excellence-building instructions to their offspring, they are willing and able to make unbelievable sacrifices to guide the young person’s growth and development. This is usually reinforced with a discipline that gives pride of place to a humble respect for Almighty God, and a culture that teaches every family member the discipline of sharing, as well as the practice of showing a true respect for each other’s space and property.

With the benefit of this excellent foundation, many of our compatriots have held positions of responsibility here and elsewhere, positions in which they have served with distinction and honour. To take one example out of several, many of us may not remember that there was once a Nigerian Secretary-General of the Commonwealth who was in that office at a time when the misdemeanour of his country’s government fell so far below acceptable standards that the country was suspended from that respectable forum. That Secretary-General did not falter in leading the international organization to take and implement the right decision with the stamp of excellence that the situation demanded.
We know, also, that we do not have to go very far away to find examples of business organizations that are achieving results of excellent quality year after year, to the pleasure and satisfaction of their stakeholders. We have had Nigerian lawyers and judges of such outstanding quality that they have been trusted to help emerging nations outside our shores to establish their own judicial systems. Even now, large numbers of Nigerian professionals are registering truly excellent performance as they perform competitively in many parts of the world.

Even in the arena of party politics where we are currently going through some rough times, our history offers us the memory of leaders of our first republic, whose performance was so clearly based on the true interests of the nation, rather than the narrow interests of self. Even now, we continue to survive largely because there are still people in our nation who will stand up for what is right, even in the face of powerful but uninformed opposition. As we established earlier in this lecture, it is clear that we are not strangers to the concept of the pursuit of excellence, and we have shown that we can make any commitment that must be made to maintain a culture of best practice.

Today we seem to be going through experiences that challenge our claim to excellence. Look wherever you like in our nation, and the pursuit of excellence seems to have lost much steam. How do we explain the prevalence of divisive, tension-generating rhetoric that some have labelled hate-speech? How has it become a regular occurrence for cattle rearers to drive their animals into private farmlands, and even into school classrooms, where they interrupt the education of our children and put the economy of the nation in jeopardy? Why are we not disturbed that, in competing with one another in the arena of good governance, one former President gleefully informs us, through the media, that corruption in the time of his successor has become far worse than it was in his time?

My belief is that our pursuit of excellence has become the victim of our own self-induced confusion. We seem to be uncertain about what we really want to be, and so, our performance brings us little joy or satisfaction. We know what a performance of excellence should look like. We even make the right provision in our Constitution for people to perform excellently. Our national Anthem and National Pledge provide strong reminders of the fact that we need the help of Almighty God if we are to be successful. Yet, we do a great deal to frustrate the very wise provisions that we ourselves have made.

The Pipe-C Syndrome: I recall that people of my generation were taught mathematics in a way that etched certain important concepts in the mind of the learner. There was this lesson based on three water pipes, A, B and C, which were attached to a cistern. The pipes were of different diameters, and while pipes A and B were bringing water into the cistern, pipe C was taking water out. Clearly, if A and B were of larger capacity than C, the cistern would soon be full. On the other hand, if pipe C was larger in diameter than A and B, the cistern had no hope of ever getting filled up. In a situation where we have the right knowledge, and have even produced eminent people who have demonstrated excellence of performance, we have sufficient capacity in our pipes A and B. Our continuing failure to achieve sustained excellence seems to suggest that our pipe C population is present in overwhelming numbers! Unless we find a way of reducing the influence of that population, our pursuit of excellence may continue to suffer high levels of frustration.

What must we do?: In the earlier part of this paper, we pointed to the fact that we cannot pursue excellence successfully without working hard, adopting the right values, and committing to a discipline of consistent best practice. So, let us discuss the first requirement – hard work. One of the provisions that we have made for rewarding hard work of excellent quality is the creation of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM). The Award is given only to citizens of Nigeria who have produced some work of intellectual excellence and relevance. No one can fail to be impressed by the criteria that have been established for the Award, and the list of those who have received it truly justifies the claim that these are people of real distinction. Question: If we believe that this practice of giving award-for-performance is good, why do we continue to give national honours to some people merely for arriving in a position of responsibility, even before they do anything in that office? Is this best practice?
Excellence and Accountability: I suppose we all know that there is a link between responsibility, authority and accountability, a link that we cannot ignore if we are to succeed in any office of national or community importance.

In recognition of this, we encourage office holders by the provisions that we make for their welfare while they are in office. We then give them the authority (some call it power) to dispose sizeable portions of our community assets so that they can produce the desired results. Since the resources that they use belong to all of us, we ought to be able to find out how well the office holder has applied the resources for the benefit of all. We do two other things – we actually pay office holders for their service, and we make some of them swear an oath that they will put the interest of the community above their personal interests while in office. With regret, I remind you that we also do one other thing – we grant them immunity from accountability! We say that making them formally accountable will be a distraction to them. And yet, all these people are public servants, servants that should be made to give an account to the people that they serve! We ourselves are largely delinquent in carrying out our duty to insist on calling our servants to account. The result? Immunity quickly and invariably begets impunity. By what stretch of the imagination can anyone describe that sorry performance as best practice?

Excellence and Custodianship: If only we can come away from our unwillingness to work hard at what we do; if only we will understand and adopt a strong culture of true accountability; and if only every one of us living today will take on the role and responsibility of custodianship in respect of our noble values, high standards and good discipline, the pursuit of excellence will become, once again, the hallmark of our performance and interactions. We rejoice that the members of the Cadbury Nigeria Alumni Association have chosen to travel along this road as custodians of that which they once received. Like them, we must accept the fact that we all have a duty to preserve the good things of this nation for the generations yet unborn. Only when we work with determination to uphold the standards that promote excellence, can we hope to pay our debt to our successors. In this regard, many of you may already be familiar with the Athenian Oath, to which the people of Classical Athens swore in their time:

The Athenian Oath We will never bring disgrace to this our city
by any act of dishonesty or cowardice, nor ever desert our suffering comrades in the ranks;
We will fight for the ideals and the sacred things of the city both alone and with many;
We will revere and obey the city’s laws and do our best to incite to a like respect and reverence
those who are prone to annul or set them at naught;
We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public sense of public duty;
That thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful
than it was transmitted to us (vii)

All the elements are there: working hard to serve the community faithfully; fighting for the values and standards that promote excellence; cultivating a sense of public duty; and taking responsibility for passing on a better nation to future generations: these are the elements of enduring best practice that will confirm our fitness for the pursuit of excellence. Members of CNAA have shown the lead in this noble endeavor. My word to the rest of us – Go, and do thou likewise!

– Being an abridged version of a speech delivered by Dr. Christopher Kolade, former Chief Executive and Chairman of Cadbury Nigeria Plc, and ex-igerian High Commissioner to The United Kingdom at a Cadbury Nigeria Alumni Association event recently