Nothing But Cream: Promoting Excellence in the Workplace

Nothing But Cream: Promoting Excellence in the Workplace by Laura Stack“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of Heaven and Earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'”


— Martin Luther King, Jr., American minister and civil rights leader.



We’ve all heard the saying “the cream rises to the top,” and anyone who’s ever handled raw milk knows this to be true. Business leaders love to apply this term to the workplace—but rarely do they bother to tell you that, with a little hard work on your part, your team’s output can be mostly cream. Like everything else it takes time, careful planning, and consistent guidance—but that’s why they call you a “manager,” right?

To fight any tendencies toward complacency, try these tactics to promote excellence in your team:

1. Exercise the E’s. I’ve written entire articles on the value of Empowerment and Engagement. To this fundamental pair of E-tactics I now add a third: Encouragement. The Three E’s intertwine so thoroughly it’s hard to have one without the others. Engagement involves getting your people to care enough about what they do to grab the ball and run without constant prodding. To accomplish this, you must Empower them, so they’ll willingly take the initiative without fear of censure; otherwise they won’t make the least move without your say-so. And remember: even if they feel Engaged and do have sufficient Empowerment to “own” their jobs, they can’t know that for sure if you don’t make it clear. So Encourage them to actively do things and make suggestions that move you more quickly toward your organizational goalposts.

2. Recognize. Inspire your people to excel. Don’t just lead by example; when someone does something right, give them a public pat on the back. When they do something spectacularly right, give them a bonus or a promotion. Find ways to encourage them to achieve your goals. Monetary incentives make for excellent motivation, so don’t stint with the contents of the pay envelope.

3. Train. Study your team members well enough to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Then hone those strengths and shore up their weaknesses. The former often profits you more than the latter; though you should try to do both whenever you can. Put some deep thought into the subject and then spend your training budget on the mix of group and individual activities that best aligns your team efforts with the overall organizational strategy.

4. Challenge. Unproductivity, thy name is boredom. When someone’s work seems too easy, they’ll stop paying attention and get sloppy. If someone proves they can handle a fuller plate than you initially expected, set them a tougher task. Suppose Al Einstein worked for you; would you have him mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges? I doubt it. If you know someone has the potential to do more, let them!

Reach for the Stars

There’s plenty of room at the top for anyone seeking excellence. Even if there weren’t, it’s not your problem if others can’t compete. So urge your people to rev their engines and take off like rockets, even if they’ve never done especially well before. No excuses, no despair, no negativity. Even if you don’t quite hit your mark in the end, at least you set one. Keep trying.

As the saying goes, you never really fail until you just give up.



  1. I wish you worked at our company. We are sadly lacking in all four points.

  2. It all comes down to cost. Companies want you to work hard and deliver but when rewards or training issues come they don’t want to spend the money.

    And paranoid supervisors who won’t let their people just do what they are trained and experienced to do also get in the way.

    My best performance and for the company was when my supervisor would tell people “I don’t know what he does (tongue in cheek) but he does everything well”. He trusted me and told me to just do what I knew – and most importantly, if you make a mistake we’ll find a way to deal with it. Powerful words.

  3. Laura, I love that quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.! What a way to start your article. I’m doing some general research to prepare for a project I’m working on with learning and development software right now, and this post stood out to me. As someone who has worked under several managers, I’ve heard the ‘cream rises to the top’ thing more times than I can count. And not once did I see those same managers providing the resources and knowledge that almost everyone can be cream if the team is willing to do their part. Consistent guidance and excellent training are necessary for this to work, and I think that’s why it’s so often overlooked. It takes a leader to LEAD their team to greatness, whereas managers are often guilty of providing the framework with maybe 20% of the leadership their team needs. Engaging, empowering, and encouraging your team isn’t easy! It’s demanding, and that’s just the first step. You also need to recognize your team members’ individuality, train them well enough to know them, and finally challenge them enough to keep it interesting. So much goes into leadership, and I wish everyone could be as passionate about it as you are! Thanks again.


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