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Develop a Culture of Mastery

Jul 27, 2020

Some call it attention to detail. Others call it skill or pride in a job well-done. But a complete and well-executed job doesn’t happen by accident. Let’s talk about the foundational aspect of mastery. Those things that, if you don’t have them, will make your work deliver unpredictable results.

This article started as a piece praising attention to detail, since that’s one of our values. But it quickly became apparent that attention to detail is built on other things. In other words, it would be difficult to expect a newbie to notice detail when they’re still learning the job. But the quicker they learn the job, the quicker they can reach a state of mastery.

Why Does Mastery Matter?

So what does it mean to build a culture of mastery, and why does it matter? If you lack competence in your culture — if your culture doesn’t have within it the ability to develop character, knowledge and an organized mind in each of its employees — mistakes result.

So how do you build a culture of mastery?

The Problem: Prioritizing Resources

Nobody wants to suck at their job. But with competing priorities, we all feel the strain of limited resources. We can’t always know where to put our attention. We need to rest, eat and sleep. We can’t work all the time. Even if we could, the sheer number of problems would expose the limitation of our mental abilities.

We just can’t think and learn fast enough.

If we had unlimited cognitive abilities, we might be able to get to a high level of detail right away, even as a novice, without knowing much about the topic at all. Think of how much we could get done! But that’s not the case. And since it’s not, let’s turn our attention to the reality.

Focus

It starts with focus. If you don’t really know what you’re doing and you don’t — as a company — focus on an area of competence, mastery could take a very long time at the company level, and at the individual employee level. And if you lack focus, the value and price premium you can demand from the market probably won’t grow much.

Focus, on the other hand, gives you the ability to dig deep, to build the experience, to form processes that make it easy to maintain quality standards and notice mistakes early in any process.

Experience

Focus builds experience. When you’ve done a job over and over again, you develop process memory, able to predict what a job well-done should look like and quality problems stand out like a sore thumb to you.

Even more than that, you’ve wrestled with the extremes. You’ve seen time, stress and weather take their toll and you know what your materials can take and what they can’t.

You’ve gone through the mental exercise of creating rules for your own processes, and have seen those processes fail.

It’s like when you fight the same enemy. Over time, you probe and you continually try to understand how that enemy fights. His tendencies, his strengths, his weaknesses. And that’s why experience matters. Because experience gives us that testing and allows us to know where to look, and where we likely to need to focus our attention.

And so, with experience comes the ability to focus attention on the right details.

Interesting how focus gives you experience, which allows you more focus. It’s like compounding interest. Invest in focus and get the experience that compounds your focus, saving you time and mental energy.

Belief

Belief might sound touchy-feely, but without faith that a certain level of quality matters and is expected, we won’t put forth the effort. Remember, we have competing priorities, we might have stress in our personal lives, fatigue or health issues. That’s the case with even the best of us. And if my employee doesn’t understand that I care about quality, they won’t double-check when that little voice in their head tells them something’s wrong. They’ll ignore it and move on to the next job.

So we have to believe it’s important, or we’ll ignore it and move on.

Leadership

Leadership drives everything we talked about until now. It creates that accountability from the top, and it works in several ways. But one of them is that the one who signs the checks, if he or she is paying attention to detail, then everyone else knows it’s what matters.

This removes the tension of an employee wanting to do a great job, and maybe you, as a leader, even say you care about quality, but when employees try to do a good job, you rush them to the next thing. So they realize that the boss doesn’t want them “wasting time” getting to know the work, trying things and getting really familiar with the level of quality that’s possible.

Employees don’t just want to keep their jobs. They also realize they’re getting paid, and they owe you that that time. So convince them; demonstrate that it’s important.

Don’t be afraid to set the values, and let mastery be one of them. After all, you, as a leader, set standards and demonstrate that you care about quality work that comes from a culture of mastery. Do this and your employees will see that you’re willing to pay for it. And when they see you put money (read: the cost of their time) on quality, they get the message. And they get it real quick.

It Doesn’t Hurt to Love and Serve

Not to get all touchy-feely, but it helps if you’re invested in the people you’re serving.

This provides the motivation and context. It wraps everything up, giving all of our work a reason. Go back to the beginning, when you first got into this line of work, and remember why. This is a craft, not an assembly line. And although we’ve gotten more efficient, if you create a culture that encourages and rewards excellence in work in order to love and serve others, you’ve created a uniting principle that everyone can get behind.

Because If we love others, our attention to detail takes on a purpose.

And although the limitations of our own humanity, our inability to focus for long periods of time, a lack of experience, and then a constant temptation to cut corners all threaten to pull us off-track, we find focus and stability in a desire to love and serve, making the results of our own work more consistent and growing employees who are masters of their craft.

If It Were Easy, Anyone Could Do It

As a leader, you can create a culture of mastery. But it’s not easy. It takes good leadership that defines quality and rewards attention to detail. It takes an industry focus that helps your company develop processes and experience to make you really good in an area. And it takes the belief that it’s all important. Then you’ll be able to create a culture that can go out there and serve at its best, a company that creates masters, and a company that you can be proud of.

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