This article advocates the creation of an environment to achieve world class performance in business, sports, or education. Based on my learnings accumulated during more than two decades as a Red Bull manager, as an athlete, and as a lecturer, I have identified the following three elements that are key for the creation of an Island of Excellence as a manageable place, where performances can be delivered which are comparable to the best in the world:
1) All members of the team have to feel the same vision.
2) The talents on your island/in your team must have certain characteristics in common: ‘perseverance’ to remain determined over a long period of time as well as sharing the ‘values’ of everybody else on the island.
3) The concept of ‘strengthening strengths’ has to be applied at all times.
Why do we need Islands of Excellence?
‘I hate mediocrity! I prefer players to be really bad – at least that’s entertaining.’ So spoke a world class sports coach, standing for all those managers, coaches and educators trying to fight mediocrity in order to deliver excellence – something that only the best in the world can do. Mediocrity is a powerful force, somehow comparable to gravity (and ‘gravity sucks’ – a convincing statement from the T-shirt of a young skateboarder). Just like gravity, there is something that inexorably tears us downwards, towards the bottom of a sea of mediocrity. It is hard to do daily battle with this force, and to help talents rise above this quicksand. However, when you can help a young talent become world class and fulfil his or her dream, it is one of the most rewarding feelings a coach, manager or educator can experience.
Whilst helping talents develop their full potential is the key reason for creating an Island of Excellence, Islands of Excellence can also have a strong positive impact on the world outside of that Island.
An independent study conducted by HHL and Friedrich Schiller University Jena in 2016 on the public value of the new German Bundesliga Club RB Leipzig investigated the value of the club’s societal contribution and its capacity to augment common good (Meynhardt, Timo; Frantz, Eduard: Der Public Value des RB Leipzig). One of the findings was that the success of the RB Leipzig football club and its relentless focus on high performance had a significant positive effect on the collective self-esteem of the society of Leipzig and the wider region! Another example of the public value of an ‘Island of Excellence’ is one of the best Austrian private schools – St. Gilgen International School. The positive impact of the school on the idyllic village of St. Gilgen on Lake Wolfgang /Salzburg cannot only be measured by an annual tax income for the small municipality in excess of 100K Euro, but also by the 40 administrative jobs created for regional people and, perhaps more importantly, a significant turnover for the local restaurants and cafeterias outside of peak tourist times in summer and winter.
This article will focus on creating Islands of Excellence, by finding the right vision (or purpose) for specific talents with the right personality, and by focusing on their strengths rather than on their weaknesses. The following picture may help to visualize an island of excellence – with talents standing out like rocks in a sea of mediocrity, covered by fertile soil, which represents their character. With the right human touch working on the soil, eventually the palm tree - the purpose or the vision - will grow higher and higher.
My own aspiration to deliver excellence, or world class results, stands in a certain contradiction to my own mediocre sports performances. In October 2017, I had the opportunity to start in the Ironman Hawaii race. After swimming 3.8km, cycling 180km and running 42km through the heat of Kona, I finished somewhere in the midfield, far away from a podium place in my age group (50+). However, it was fantastic to be in the same race as the world elite in triathlon, to watch them, to witness how they prepared during the last days for the event, how they raced, how they handled their personal performances thereafter, and especially to speak to some of them about their dreams, their visions and the hard work that had brought them to the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii.
A lot earlier than that, as a university student, I was chosen to play for several years in an Austrian handball team that was close to world class. But also on the handball field my performances were mostly characterized by mediocrity (with a few positive exceptions that I love to relay to friends and family members if they are not quick enough to climb the nearest tree). I remember spending a lot of time sitting on the bench in decisive games. The first time I had a chance to personally witness an Island of Excellence was on a training camp organized by our Croatian coach together with the Yugoslav Olympic handball team. It was the first time we saw a group of athletes who had their vision ‘we are going for Olympic Gold!’ written on their faces with every move they made, from dusk till dawn. It was the first time I saw world class dedicated coaches for every different playing position, who completely focused on the individual strengths of the respective players. For example, the fast and agile wing players undertook completely different exercises to the large and heavy players, they hardly practiced together as a whole team. And it was the first time I saw a team full of excellence that went out there with nothing else in mind but to win the Olympic Gold Medal.
During more than 23 years of working for Red Bull Energy Drink with global responsibilities in marketing and sales, I was fortunate to meet not only some of the best sports athletes in the world, but also excellent business managers and educators, and I could gather knowledge about how they were able to deliver world class performances over a long period of time. From my global work experience and academic background (including every leadership-related post graduate course I could attend at Harvard Business School), I have created this theory of how to create Islands of Excellence in various fields. Within my responsibilities as global Red Bull manager as well as in several pro bono activities in the fields of sports and education, I have applied the concepts on more than one occasion. Not all of our ‘Islands of Excellence’ projects were successful, but some of them did help talents to deliver performances at a standard above anyone else in this world.
1) Feel your vision!
The vision is like the palm tree on an island of excellence, visible from the distance. Almost every organization has a vision nowadays, something greater than annual goals or targets. This ‘something greater’ can also be defined as a mission, or a purpose. However, most of these visions are mediocre, and they rarely touch every member of an organization. A leading Swiss banker was recently asked by an HSG student about the vision of his bank, and he replied that this was a question that only the relevant department of his bank could answer. It is easier for sports athletes or teams to proffer a picture that stands for their world class success, be it an Olympic or a championship title. It might be easier for them to visualize how they stand on a podium and celebrate their success thereafter than for those engaged in business or educational projects. How can we create world class visions outside of the world of sports?
As a first step, let us look at an example of a powerful vision. When teaching university students, I like to refer to the French national hero and creator of ‘Le Petit Prince’, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: How do you motivate a group of people to build a ship? The answer is not to start getting organized, distributing the workload etc. but to start raising everybody’s passion for the sea! Every group member should be able to visualize what the boat could eventually look like, they should taste the salt water on their lips, feel the wind in their hair and hear the seagulls cry above their heads. Only then should they get started and organized. Another example is the story about an interviewer at a huge construction site who is asking the workers what they are doing. The first worker tells him ‘I work from nine to five’. The second replies ‘I want to be the best worker at the entire construction site’. And the third one gives the following answer; ‘we are building a cathedral!’ When tourists visit Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA, they are told the story of the visit of J.F. Kennedy in the 1960s, who side-swiped protocol to ask a janitor what he was doing. The answer? ‘Mr. President, we are bringing a man to the moon.’ He stood for an entire nation sharing a vision to be faster than the USSR to set foot on the moon.
How do these examples compare to typical business visions to ‘grow by x%’, ‘defend market share’ or ‘exceed xxx in sales’? The difference is what incites every single member of the organization to step up to the challenge, it is the feeling that gets them going every morning, through the difficult middle of every world class performance, and eventually delivers excellent results.
The strongest business vision I helped to create, visualize and eventually bring to fruition was the result of a dream of an old salesman. In the early days of Red Bull in Austria, when most people regarded Red Bull Energy Drink as unhealthy and too expensive, coupled with an unacceptable ‘Gummibaerli (jelly baby)’ taste, our team of 6 Red Bull employees met to discuss what we could create out of Red Bull in Austria in the long run. One of us - Leo - spoke after a period of hesitation, 'gentlemen, you will probably laugh at me but I have had a dream that I want to share with you: We were sitting in a conference room when the door opened, a man in a suit entered the room and presented himself as a representative from a research company. He proceeded to announce that Red Bull had overtaken Coca-Cola as the number one beverage in Austria.’ And yes, Leo got some sarcastic comments, this goal was just too distant to sound realistic. Red Bull would have to quadruple against a competitor with one hundred years of history and one hundred times more people on their payroll. However, a couple of strong growth years later it became a more realistic vision in which the majority of our people could start to believe. As soon as this goal became attainable, about 5 years later, we made it the official vision of our entire Austrian team – now comprising around 50 people.
We did not only speak about Leo’s dream, we also started speaking about how we would celebrate together once it was a reality. The idea of a sailing boat on the party island Ibiza was launched, we discussed what the boat should look like (thankfully taking the lesson from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) – it should be a large catamaran – and we started sharing the music of Ibiza so that we could have the sound of success in our ears. The closer we advanced towards our goal, the more excited and enthusiastic the team became. Even the sampling girls started to talk their family members out of drinking Coca-Cola for one year, because this one can of Coke could make the difference!
And then the vision became a reality, on our annual year-end conference in Vienna. We seated old Leo – close to retirement – in the first row and I watched him witness the following: The door opened, a gentleman in a business suit entered, presented himself as representative of a research company and announced that Red Bull had overtaken Coca-Cola in terms of sales value in Austria. Poor Leo – the tears poured from his eyes and almost washed away his thick glasses. The atmosphere in the room was out of control, and it is fair to say that we did not manage to get things under control again for some time – especially not on the wild party weekend with the whole Austrian team in Ibiza. But that is a different story. What remains is the conviction that everybody in the Austrian team, from the sales support advisor to the marketing assistant, believed so fervently in this vision and wanted it to happen so desperately, that in the end the world class result was unavoidable. It constituted a huge success in a small country, but it served as a lesson to the entire company, which was about to roll out the distribution of Red Bull Energy across the world: If this can happen in Austria, there is no reason why it should not be possible in every single market in the world. And for quite a few team members this was the start of an exciting international career with the global roll-out of Red Bull.
Here is another example of an exceptionally strong business vision, created by a Red Bull team from various countries, preparing for the future launch of Red Bull in France – on top of their workload in their existing roles. As background, France was one of the last countries to authorize the sales of Red Bull Energy Drink in Europe. Enthusiastically, the team of a dozen colleagues prepared for the day when, finally, Red Bull was officially for sale in France – French consumers had already ‘smuggled’ Red Bull cans to their country from neighboring markets for years. But one year after the other passed without receiving the green light from the French authorities.
To keep everybody motivated, we invited the team to Paris and walked to the ‘Place Charles-de-Gaulle’ in the center of Paris in the dark. Standing there we spoke about how wonderful it would be to have a hundred Red Bull Minis (Mini Cooper Convertibles with giant Red Bull cans on the back) driving around this ‘Place’ one day, driven by the charming Red Bull sampling girls from all around Europe, all arriving simultaneously. We closed our eyes and imagined this scene with the sound of the Parisian traffic in our ears. This vision was key to making one of the most successful long-term group projects possible, and it brought us through difficult years of wait, hope and frustration.
On the 1st April 2008, we stood on top of a building overlooking the ‘Place Charles-de-Gaulle’, with the ‘Arc de Triomphe’ at its core. A few minutes before 11:00 a Red Bull Mini arrived – from Spain – noticed that it was too early and disappeared again. Starting at exactly 11:00, Red Bull Minis materialized from all the avenues converging together at the ‘Place’, all with flags representing their nations. They had driven from England, the Benelux countries, from Scandinavia, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Eastern Europe and even Northern African countries, much more than a hundred Red Bull Minis, each with two charming young ladies, ready to celebrate the arrival of Red Bull in Paris. The police tried to stop a few but could not – how do you stop a charming army of young ladies, who do not speak any French?
It was leagues ahead even of our initial optimistic vision; the pictures we took travelled around the world, and the news in Paris reported on the traffic jam and the fact that Red Bull had arrived. I allowed myself to envision the impact this would have for our brand awareness and about the big celebration party that night. I felt so good and invincible on the roof of that building – until we saw the army arrive - with heavy guns. This was the moment when we lost control, although we still radioed the girls to disappear right now (easier said than done in a traffic jam). I did not feel like a hero at all and started to escape from the scene, expecting to be arrested at any moment in the streets of Paris. What I no longer was able to witness was that army, police cars and motorbikes then chased Red Bull Minis through the streets of Paris, and stopped about half of them to line up at the Champs Élysées. Next, our fearless lawyer from Paris, Alain, entered the scene on his motor scooter, discussed the situation with the police, and stood on a bench in order to address the girls: ‘You must promise me now, that you will no longer drive in convoy! Then you are released!’ The girls cried out in joy, hugged the policemen, gave them cold Red Bull cans to drink, took a number of photos of an unforgettable event, and drove away – to prepare for a spectacular launch party that night.
The common factor for both these situations was a communal feeling of a unique and powerful vision of excellence, which every single individual believed could happen. It is not important who in a group conceives the right vision. And sometimes you have to wait a long time, until you discover it and instinctively know it is the right one. Sebastian Vettel knew already at the age of 11, when he first contacted my Red Bull colleague Oliver in Germany, that he wanted to become a Formula 1 World Champion. Dietrich Mateschitz was in his forties when he started to create a brand and a company that would give wings to people and their ideas. And my own mother was a retired teacher when she discovered in herself the vision to help found a school in Africa (in Nimo, Nigeria). It is complex to describe the ingredients necessary for a world class vision; it is perhaps more valuable to describe the feeling you experience when you have found the right one. Just like butterflies in your stomach – this is how Andy Holzer would describe it. Andy is one of the most successful mountaineers in Austria, and a bestselling author. Amongst other remarkable achievements, he reached all the Seven Summits, including Mount Everest on his third attempt in spring 2017. And he is blind.
2) Your talent brought you here, your character will keep you!
This phrase is the sign which adorns the entrance to the Red Bull Football academy in Brazil, a country where you can find a plethora of talented footballers on every corner of every ‘favela’. However, we know from the German Football Club RB Leipzig that only 2-3% of those players selected for the football academy will eventually end up in the professional team, playing in the German Bundesliga. So, wherein lies the difference between becoming a not-quite top talent or a world class professional player? After watching hundreds of talents come and go in sports, business and educational projects, I believe that there are mainly two decisive aspects of a talent’s character; ‘perseverance’ to remain determined over a long period of time as well as sharing the ‘values’ of everybody else on the island.
Doing anything for ten years or more, day in, day out, will result in your being really good at it. I believe that many people can even qualify at Olympic standard if they dedicate more than 10 years of their lives to nothing else other than making their Olympic dream come true. Of course, you would have to select an Olympic sport in which you had a certain talent, based on your individual strengths. And yes, there are usually age limits… The decisive factor would be your personality, your dedication and perseverance to continue over a long period of time. Ideally, this motivation is intrinsic – it comes from within and is paired with a strong vision that is not forced on the talent by parents or other decision makers. Only then is it sustainable over periods when the talents has the freedom to make their own choices. On an ‘Island of Excellence’ like a Red Bull Football Academy, only the talents with the right character and level of perseverance to dedicate themselves to many, many years of tough training will eventually succeed.
What is true for sports, also rings true for education or business. Mr. Gianluca Seguso, President and CEO of his world class glass manufacturing family business, which goes back to the 14th century, told me that it takes a talented glass artist ten years to become a master – and only very few have the perseverance to follow through. His business is located on the island of Murano (Venice), which has been known as an island of excellence for glass manufacturing for hundreds of years.
The ‘values’ aspect is more complex, but it is extremely important for an ‘Island of Excellence’ that people are sharing the same values in order to thrive. It is the ‘how’ things are being said and done. If everybody has the same understanding of the unwritten norms, as defined by the shared values, then the team can develop a winning ‘culture’ as described by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen in various publications. This is something that cannot be copied and taken away by a competitor. Competitors can always try to copy a successful concept and hire key people in order to make it happen, but they cannot transfer the winning ‘culture’ from an ‘Island of Excellence’. The founder and CEO of Red Bull, Dietrich Mateschitz, would even add his credo that the ‘how’ things are done is more important than the ‘what’ is being done.
It is often the characterizing stories of an organization that can describe their culture much better than a set of words. When I decided to leave the successful FMCG company Procter & Gamble to work for a small Austrian beverage company – Red Bull – with less than 20 employees in 1994, it was the following story that set the butterflies alight in my stomach: The founder of Red Bull would pay our speeding fines because everyone had so much to do that you had to drive really fast. True or not (I paid all my speeding tickets myself, and lots of them) this myth encompassed so much of the anti-authoritarian, entrepreneurial and polarizing culture that has always made Red Bull so special and was key for its global success.
The best alpine skier in the world, Marcel Hirscher from Austria (World Cup Winner and Olympic Champion), has established his own Island of Excellence under the leadership of his father. The powerful Austrian Skiing Federation (ÖSV) does not control his winning system, and his sponsors (like Red Bull) do not play a significant role therein. Marcel is surrounded by a team of less than a dozen carefully selected people, all of whom fully share the culture. This is unique (his formidable talent and perseverance notwithstanding): the highest level of professionalism in every single detail, yet independence and loyalty play a major role. Most of his team members have been working with him for a long period of time.
In the already-mentioned example of St. Gilgen International School as
an ‘Island of Excellence’ in the field of international education, the entire culture of the organization had to change under dramatic circumstances. In April 2016, my wife and I were informed that the beloved school of our children in St. Gilgen close to Salzburg (birthplace of W. A. Mozart) – an international school preparing students for the International Baccalaureate (IB) - had to close from one day to the next because the owner, an investment fund, was making a loss. Within two weeks of this crisis, a number of parents had begun an initiative that was later described as the ‘educational miracle of St. Gilgen’.
Decisive was the immediate cultural shift from a profit to a not-for-profit organization, with many parents contributing to the school on a pro bono basis. With this principle in mind and minimal sleep we developed a new business plan that would not only save the school, but develop it into one of the finest institutions of international education in Europe – by re-investing any earnings back into the school. We convinced all teachers and staff members to stay, all parents and students to believe in our school and all school partners to help, together establishing an educational ‘Island of Excellence’ in St. Gilgen – without any of the owners making money from it. The belief in this vision and the cultural cohesion were so strong that it was even possible to purchase the school’s real estate – beautiful buildings in a very attractive location next to Lake Wolfgang – without bank loans, only with funds donated or lent by parents. And to complete the cultural transformation from ‘profit driven’ to ‘non-profit/pro bono’, the school could open its doors to a large number of scholarship students, whose parents cannot afford the full school fees. I do not remember whose idea it was to make this cultural transformation, but it was definitely key for its success.
Let us go back to the picture of an ‘Island of Excellence’, with the talents standing out like rocks from a sea of mediocrity. But only the character with perseverance and the right values produces the fertile soil covering the rocks, that will make the palm tree – the vision – grow. What is still missing is the human touch, the intangible extra that will nurture the palm tree. Just like the ‘Petit Prince’ of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who took care of his rose and therefore made it unique.
3) Strengthen the Strengths!
The eye-opening experiment conducted by the Gallup research company is one that every decision maker in the areas of business, sports or education should know about: If a group of average readers (reading approx. 90 words per minute) goes through a speed reading course, they can on average improve their fast reading by almost 70%. If a group of fast readers (approx. 350 words per minute) undertakes the same speed reading course, would their performance improve more or less than the average group? The perhaps surprising answer is that they would improve by 700% (!), to approx. 2900 words per minute (they would now be in the second minute of reading through this article…).
The concept of strengthening strengths has already arrived in many successful sports and business projects. If Raphael Nadal, one of the world’s best ever tennis players, had focused on his weaknesses as compared to other professional players – like his service – he would not have become world class. He was fortunate enough to be surrounded by coaches (on his home island Mallorca) focusing on his strengths, like his returns and the ground strokes. The relatively weak service was only brought to an average level – it would never be the decisive factor between winning and losing a final in Paris.
Also in team sports, training strengths is more and more individualized. One example of successful individual coaching in today’s world of handball is the Austrian Junior team (coached by Roland Marouschek, managed by Thomas Menzl) under the custody of the Red Bull Thalgau Training Centre (guided by Dr. Pansold). Not only do they receive individual fitness plans based on their individual diagnostic values, but key values (like CK) are measured before every team training or match, and the training plans or field times are adjusted immediately. As a result, the team beat Germany in the final of the school world championships in autumn 2017 in Qatar. An Austrian team beating a German team is such an unusual occurrence that it constituted breaking news on Austrian public TV. And what had made the difference in a long tournament with 7 games in 6 days was fitness – something that a small nation could use as a strength competing with large nations that have much stronger and taller players.
Companies that try to focus their outgoing, extrovert people on number crunching instead of going out there and selling to clients, will not deliver excellent results in the long run. If they focus their training and development on these strengths, they will make them world class sales people. Unfortunately, the job interview question ‘what are your weaknesses?’ is still quite common. My advice for candidates preparing for job interviews is to sell their individual strengths to their future employers. All of us have unique strengths, and we are fortunate if parents, educators, coaches or mentors help us develop them further. In her book ‘Dream Catcher’, Marlo Morgan describes a tribe of non-civilized Australian Aborigines, and chronicles how the members of the tribe welcome every new born with the words ‘we love you and want to share your path with you’, how they help individuals to identify their unique strengths, from ‘healer’ to ‘story teller’ etc. When we have a chance to identify what our strengths are, we gain so much more from what we do, and our society will eventually benefit from excellent contributions in so many different fields.
The concept of strengthening strengths has unfortunately not yet set foot in most systems of mainstream education. Most of us know children that are not talented in – for example - mathematics, and, as a consequence, have to spend hours of extra effort to be brought to the same average level as the other classmates. In Austria with its 8,8 million inhabitants, parents spend more than 100 million Euros per year on additional learning support for 250,000 pupils – on subjects where their children are weak!
‘Making everybody mediocre’ is the opposite of ‘strengthening strengths’, and I believe this is the biggest mistake an educational system can make. Pupils should spend additional time on the areas where their strengths lie, be it languages, science, music, etc. Of course, it is important to reach a minimum level in subjects which do not reflect their strengths. Bluntly, everybody should be able to calculate percentages. But this must not be the focus of their education.
From the school systems I know, the IB (International Baccalaureate) is one of the best programs; one that enables students to opt for a lower academic level version of their final exams in their weaker subjects. At the same time, they can specify their higher-level subjects and choose therefore to dig really deep and study very hard in their areas of strength. Most importantly, it is the key responsibility of the parents, teachers and especially the students themselves to ascertain during the middle years (13-16 years old) where their strengths lie, and to develop them further. There are of course cases where students do not discover their own strengths until much later. And sometimes, there are sad cases where teenagers have already given up looking for strengths inside themselves, possibly after traumatic experiences or due to misleading indoctrination. However, it is one of the most rewarding moments for an educator, a mentor or a parent, when a young character identifies what they were made for. For me, it was a magical moment when a young man from a village in the Tyrol finally found in himself the great strength to build unbelievable digital worlds, and was able to work on this strength with some of the best conceptual arts developers in Los Angeles. Before that, he had almost given up hope for his future, after going through difficult times at school, despondent during a cooking apprenticeship, etc.
On an ‘Island of Excellence’, strengthening strengths is the most important personal human contribution that one can make to help deliver world class success. Hiring the best coaches who have both the skills to develop those strengths further, as well as the passion that they can transfer to their talents is the most important investment. In our society, those educators and coaches should receive highest recognition, as they can add most value to our society. I know many passionate, wonderful school teachers, who have started their career in public school systems with the ambition to contribute to changing the world for the better. Almost of all them were frustrated and disillusioned after less than 10 years, mostly because the system was not ready for a significant change.
I have utmost respect for every teacher and educator in any system. I find it hard to envisage a revolution of the school system itself, which has witnessed little innovation since the Austrian/Hungarian Empress Maria Theresia introduced a mandatory school system in 1744 for children from 6 to 13 years old. But a lot of improvements are possible if they are being guided by ambitious school heads that receive or simply take a greater level of autonomy. And I am sure that more and more ‘Islands of Excellence’ will emerge at private schools around the globe in the future. For example, the number of international schools offering the IB graduation system is expected to double globally in the next 5 years. This development is mostly driven by middle class parents who see expensive school fees as the best possible investment into the future of their children.
What we do not need on an Island of Excellence
The importance of the following aspects to create an environment for world class performance is often completely over-estimated: Money, strategy, size and organization. I have seen quite a few projects fail that were very well equipped in all these areas. Money does play a certain role when it comes to fair payment for coaches, managers and educators. But as long as the reward system is not perceived as unfair, it does not play a major role in the pursuit of excellence. And money does not buy championships, as they say.
Setting the right strategy after endless rounds of analysis and discussion can often stand in the way of what really counts: doing things. It is the execution that makes the difference between winning and losing.
Size can matter – it can be detrimental when an organization becomes too big for the core leaders to reach every member personally. In my experience, one leader leading 7 others is ideal, as he or she can always sense what the others do and feel. An organization of approx. 50 people is also relatively easy to lead, with each of the direct reports of the key leader leading 7 people themselves. When Red Bull grew beyond that number to eventually more than 10,000 employees, it became increasingly difficult to keep the entrepreneurial spirit from the start-up phase, when almost everybody was sharing the same values without too much control. However, also in large global organizations, it is possible to create internal ‘Islands of Excellence’ as department or small country organizations, and they can make the difference for excellent performance with global impact.
The importance of organizational structure is often totally over-rated, and I have seen many managers obsessively starting with changing organizational charts after receiving a new assignment. The truth is that the best people are successful in any kind of organization, even in complete chaos, as long as the other ingredients of an Island of Excellence are present.
And what if we find out that the wrong people have landed on the Island? This is the biggest threat and requires the quickest and most difficult decisions. If a person does not have the required character – perseverance and values – or works against the vision, he or she must first receive a clear warning (‘yellow card’) before being separated from the island on occurrence of a second incident (‘red card’). The good news is that this person can be replaced by a new team member, who probably deserves the chance more, and this is best for everybody on the Island. From Professor Ernst Mohr from HSG I recently learned the dramatic history of the Easter Islands, where the population declined from more than 10,000 wealthy people (who were even able to produce the famous Moai statues) around 1300 A.D. to less than 3,000 after all the palm trees on the island had been cut down. Even signs of cannibalism were found when a Dutch boat re-discovered the island in 1722, and the population had long forgotten how to make or transport the huge Moai statues. You do not want this to happen to your Island of Excellence. Especially the vision and the values have to be defended at all times and without compromise in order to thrive in the long run.
I recently had a chance to address approximately 600 new students at HSG (St. Gallen/Switzerland) as a keynote speaker on the topic ‘human resources’ during their introductory week. As they are entering one of the best universities in Europe, they will soon notice that 24 hours a day are not enough if they want to cope with all the things they have on their plates. Identifying what is really important for them – in addition to completing their studies with good grades – will help them prioritize and say ‘no!’ to things that are not necessary in order to make progress with their priorities in both their professional and personal lives. This is a key exercise in order to learn how to best invest in your own resources – body and mind – in a responsible and sustainable manner. I sincerely hope that all the students find their personal vision or purpose that gives them butterflies in their stomach, because this feeling will help them identify what is really important for them.
No doubt all the students graduating from HSG will be very well prepared for their careers as managers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, etc., because they will learn all the skills and tools they need to succeed. I cannot judge whether the whole university can be regarded as an Island of Excellence, but I am convinced that a number of departments are. The same is true for the other universities I know from teaching as visiting lecturer, like WU in Vienna (my alma mater) and HHL in Leipzig. St. Gilgen International School is – to my knowledge - the institution of international learning that is closest to being an Island of Excellence. It helps that it is small enough to ensure that almost all staff members and the school community feel the same passion to accompany StGIS students on their path of excellence and to focus on their strengths.
But will their education create graduates who will have a positive impact on our society? If they really want to make a change and achieve something unique, something excellent, a piece of world class together with a team they are leading, they are invited to use the concept of ‘Island of Excellence’ to make this happen. I have a lot of respect for politicians and other people aspiring to make a change in macro-economic environments. I could not do it. My belief is that you and I, everybody can start creating an Island of Excellence building on his or her unique strengths – without the help of public institutions - gradually enlarging their sphere of influence, and eventually making our world a little bit better.