The ‘Standard of Performance’ that drives a brand

For a number of weeks now I’ve been recommending the book The Score Takes Care of Itself by the late Bill Walsh and Steve Jamison. While it’s predominantly a leadership book, I can’t think of one thing that has a bigger impact on building a strong, resilient brand than the leadership of the organisation and the standards they set.

And there is a concept that is mentioned throughout the book – you could call it the backbone of the story – that touches on that very issue. It’s called the ‘Standard of Performance’.

Bill Walsh was the storied coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He took them from nearly last place in the NFL to a Superbowl win in just two seasons and the ‘Standard of Performance’ was the cornerstone of his approach in that turnaround.

In a nutshell Walsh’s ‘Standard of Performance’ was the behaviour and attitude that leadership set and then embedded through their walk and talk. This was an organisation-wide expectation of how they would be together. Top down, all the way to the corners of the organisation. No person exempt no matter what the role was.

Walsh states:

“My high standards for actions and attitudes within our organisation never wavered – regardless of whether we were winning or losing.”

This is the definition of values in action. Non-negotiable even in the face of defeat.

Again from Walsh:

“My Standard of Performance – the values and beliefs within it – guided everything I did in my work at San Francisco and are defined as follows. Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement; demonstrate respect for each person in the organisation and the work he or she does; be deeply committed to teaching and learning, which means increasing my own expertise; be fair, demonstrate character; honour the direct connection between details and improvement and relentlessly seek the latter; show self-control, especially where it matters most – under pressure; demonstrate and prize loyalty; use positive language and have a positive attitude; take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort; be willing to go the extra distance for the organisation; deal appropriately with victory and defeat; adulation and humiliation (don’t get crazy with victory nor dysfunctional with loss); promote internal communication that is both open and substantive (especially under stress); seek poise in myself and those I lead; put the team’s welfare and priorities ahead of my own; maintain on ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high; and make sacrifice and commitment the organisation’s trademark.”

Nothing particularly ground-breaking here. Rigorous, sure. Demanding, you bet. But nothing you wouldn’t have heard others say in various combinations.

Walsh himself notes that other successful coaches had different approaches and standards, but that this was his way and anyone not “on the bus” quickly found themselves standing out on the curb. What set his ‘Standard of Performance’ apart was both it’s clarity and the discipline with which he applied it.

You simply can’t build a brand if you don’t know what your beliefs are and how they are to be enacted within the organisation. Brands are built through a never-ending series actions and decisions. Those actions and decisions are driven by the values of the organisation. And for them to be the right actions and decisions, people need to understand those drivers in detail.

In today’s environment of single-word collections masquerading as values statements, something like the detail in Walsh’s ‘Standards of Performance’ feels like a throwback to a different time. And maybe that’s what is needed.

Could you write up a ‘Standards of Performance’ for your organisation with the clarity and detail Walsh exhibits? Because to do so requires that there has been some deep work around what those things are and how they would be enacted in all manner of circumstances.

As I wrote last week, simplicity is pretty easy. It’s not hard to slap “respect” on a list and call it done. It takes work to develop the nuance of what that means for your organisation as Walsh does when he clarifies: “demonstrate respect for each person in the organisation and the work he or she does”. And even more, it takes the will to walk what that means even when it means firing a star player:

“Things came to a head after an unproductive contract session, when Ron left my office and proceeded to walk through our locker room making disparaging remarks about me and the 49ers… right in front of our equipment manager, Chico Norton, to whom he also made dismissive remarks. A few minutes later, news of what was going on filtered back to my office.

Immediately I called in R.C. Owens … and asked him to go to Mr Singelton’s locker and clear it out: “Shoes, shirts, socks, everything. Put it all in a box and deliver it to his house.” Word of my decision circulated fast. Everybody knew what had happened and why. It sent out a vitally important message: There are consequences–for ignoring the spoken and unspoken code of conduct that was part of the standards I had established…”

The standard of performance that your organisation expects is the standard that your employees exhibit and the standard your customers experience. If that’s not a brand issue I’m not sure what is.

What’s the ‘Standard of Performance’ in your organisation?

See you next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan


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