Excellence has become a 'hoorah' word which is widely used in higher education institutions to legitimate practices related to the recruitment/progression of staff. It can be seen as reflecting an institutionalised belief that such evaluative processes are unaffected by the social characteristics of those who work in them or their relationships with each other. Such views have been challenged by gender theorists and by those researching informal power in state structures. The purpose of this article is to raise the possibility that excellence is an 'idealised cultural construct' and a 'rationalising myth'. Drawing on data from qualitative interviews with 67 men and women, who were candidates or evaluators in recruitment/progression processes in five higher educational institutions (in Ireland, Turkey, Bulgaria, Germany and Italy), it conceptualises and illustrates masculinist, relational and 'local fit' micro-political practices that are seen to affect such recruitment/progression. Variation exists by gender and by contextual positioning in the process (i.e. as evaluator/candidate). These practices illustrate the perceived importance of the enactment of informal power. The article suggests that the construct of excellence is used to obscure these practices and to maintain organisational legitimacy in the context of multiple stakeholders with conflicting expectations.