You’re Always On Probation

By Scott Westerman
“Excellence is not a skill. It’s an attitude” ~Ralph Marston

I never worked in a role where I was “protected” by a union and quickly progressed to a level where my employment was “at will”, meaning that my boss could let me go at any time for any reason… or as was often the case in broadcasting, for no reason at all.

That seems, on the face of it, like a pretty scary proposition. After all, policy and procedure manuals often painstakingly outline steps that fall under the heading, “Progressive Discipline”. And it makes sense to make sure that the people on your team know what doing a good job looks like, are coached when they demonstrate otherwise and are made well aware when their work product is approaching the point where they no longer add value commensurate to their compensation.

The best leaders do this, with or without policies, unions or lawyers in toe. But the best team members seek to understand the definition of extraordinary performance and work to go above and beyond it every day.

The world owes us nothing. Every day we must start, right from where we are, and determine how to best add value. The resources we are given are irrelevant. Our resourcefulness is essential.

In the course of my work, I often hear people’s stories. When I ask “How did you get to where you are today?” those who have struggled will weave tales of injustice, bad luck and want. Villains, other people who are held responsible for the person’s bad fortune, almost always take center stage. Sometimes it’s circumstance. The job market changed. A health crisis happened. A divorce, death, birth, even a promotion become culprits, tieing the innocent protagonist to the railroad tracks before an oncoming train of tragedy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not discounting the impact that significant life events can have on our ability to cope. But these things eventually confront us all. How we deal with them will determine the extent of joy or suffering we experience.

Each of us are responsible for our own story. And one of the most powerful lessons we can learn is that we can change that story. As Tony Robbins likes to say, “Change your story, change your life.”

And change happens one day, one hour, one minute at a time, once we make the decision to do it.

At winter commencement, I was proud to welcome an amazing young man to the MSU alumni family. He’s a first generation college student from inner city Detroit. He comes from a world where an unfavorable interaction with the American justice system often feels like a foregone conclusion.

From this hellish existence emerged a spirit who decided that he didn’t want that life. He decided that he would one day become an entrepreneur and a philanthropist and began studying the people who lived those lives. “Nobody owes us anything,” he likes to tell me. “My attitude and effort will determine my altitude and accomplishments.”

He’s graduating with a start-up underway and has built a circle of friends and mentors who will help him get exactly where he wants to go. But he’s very aware that he’s always on probation. “Even the most successful people have to re-earn their success every single day,” he told me. “Luke 12:48 implies that ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ Never stop doing what you did to get where you are, or you won’t stay there long.”

And so, being on permanent probation can be a good thing. It forces you to continually seek ways to innovate and improve, to become a sponge for lifelong learning, and to go the extra mile to add value.

We celebrate these people. We invest in them. And we can always be confident that, in the long run, they will reap an abundant harvest.

The best possible gift we can give to a world sorely in need of exceptional people, is to become one of them.

It won’t be easy. You’ll always be on probation in the arena of high performance. But you’ll quickly discover that the real exhilaration comes in the journey and not at the destination.