Creating Cultures of Excellence

Questions for Seth Cohen

How do you determine excellence?

Charles Schusterman once said, “Trying to do something that has not been done before takes time, risk, energy and skill if you want it done well.” To me, that quote helps boil excellence down to its very essence. It is the manifestation of time, commitment, mastery and an understanding that to achieve excellence, one must have the intention to do so. It is also something that, by its nature, is hard to measure in objective or quantitative terms. Each of us understands excellence within our own context and culture, so to say one “determines excellence” is perhaps misleading. We experience excellence, and in turn, we help create the excellence that is experienced by others. In this sense, excellence is truly a partnership of the creator and the observer, and it is in that partnership that one can really understand the idea and its impact.

Why is excellence important? Or is it?

There is no question that the idea and expression of excellence is important—it serves as a form of both motivation and satisfaction. Individuals of all ages and experiences, once they are exposed to excellence, are then inspired and challenged to accept nothing less. In this sense, a culture of excellence begins to become permeating and self-perpetuating in a vital way, helping improve experiences, individuals and organizations. So, not to overstate it, but a culture of excellence is important because it impacts everything. At the same time, excellence is not the same as perfection, and we should recognize that to be excellent is to understand that imperfection is an opportunity for improvement.

Tell us how a vision of excellence factors in the work of the team at Schusterman.

First and foremost, the vision of excellence within our organization starts at the very top. As a visionary leader of our organization and in the broader philanthropic world, Lynn Schusterman holds herself and all of us to the most exacting standards of excellence. In the rigor with which we explore new ideas to the finest detail of the programs we create, Lynn sets the standard of excellence for all of us. Second, within our professional team, we emphasize continued professional self-assessment and self-improvement, challenging each other to think harder and more creatively to deliver the excellence that the constituencies we support demand from us. We focus on engaging excellent talent, but even more so, we focus on making sure that talent has the tools and training they need to grow personally and professionally. Third, we make sure that we seek out and emulate those leaders and organizations that are creating excellence in other fields. As a team, we know that there are visions of excellence that we can learn from, and in doing so, we can not only improve ourselves but the impact of our work as well.

How do you help ensure that the notions of excellence of your organization and your grantees and partners are in alignment?

This is perhaps the most important part of our work: striving to ensure that those we partner with, whether as our grantees, program partners and even our program participants, are aligned both with our values and also our vision of excellence. And the truth is, that work is also the most time intensive. It is one thing to say you hold a high standard of excellence, and it is another thing to demonstrate it. So for us, knowing the individuals—whether as leaders of organizations or as initiators of communities—is one of the most vital aspects of our work. We make a habit of both listening to them and also engaging in ongoing dialogue with them about what they are trying to achieve and how they are achieving it. As we often say in our organization, “When it’s all said and done, what’s more important is what is done than what is said.” With that in mind, we are jointly assessing our collective efforts and asking our partners and ourselves: are we achieving the level of excellence we said we would? If not, how can we work together to do so?

Does requiring excellence run counter to entrepreneurial notions around the freedom to “fail and fail fast”?

Not at all; in fact, they are symbiotic. We can only understand success if we also understand failure. In a way, this question is driving at the very nature of experimentation; while some efforts take time and effort to reasonably assess whether they are working, excellence can be grounded not only in endurance but also constant reassessment and revision. In fact, the ability to rapidly prototype new ideas and initiatives, make assessments as to their quality and then pivot and adapt are integral elements to the achievement of excellence. When we look at failure through that prism, it is more a question of our process than our product. And the key question is not always about whether the specific output is excellent, but is the process you are using excellent enough to drive you toward the desired outcome.

Regarding your work with networks, what makes a network excellent, and how does it get there?

There is substantial body of literature on this question, and the growing field of social network analysis is helping us all understand what makes a network successful in achieving its intended purpose. But in short, I think that for a network to achieve a recognizable level of excellence, three things need to be clear. First, there needs to be an understanding of the purpose and goals of the network; without it, there is no way to really assess its inherent excellence. Second, there is the nature of the constituent nodes in the network, whether they are individuals, organizations or both. A network is only the sum of its parts, so the stronger the nodes, the stronger the network. Third, the ties that bind the network together must also be strong enough to enable the network to be high-performing. Accordingly, investing in the tactics and tools that nurture those connections is essential. A network is the product of the clarity of its purpose, the potential of its people and the processes that help bond them together; if those elements are excellent, you are on your way.

How does networking help participants achieve their own excellence?

Regrettably, I think that sometimes the very use of the word “networking” belies the value it creates, in that we often think of it in terms of “schmoozing” or “leveraging relationships.” The truth is, in the right context and with the right intention, networking is a powerful process of self-challenge and improvement. When we meet people who help us understand different ideas or opportunities, we find ourselves questioning our own observations or opinions. This process of education and self-reflection drives us to think harder or differently. Through that process of intentional growth, we can achieve new levels of excellence. It can also give us a sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves and have a responsibility to contribute to the greater collective endeavor. When that is the case, not only does the individual become more excellent, the world does too.

Seth Cohen is the director of network initiatives at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (, a global organization that seeks to ignite the passion and unleash the power in young people to create positive change in the Jewish community and beyond. [email protected]

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HaYidion Excellence Summer 2015
Summer 2015