Greg Long and Butler Newman
Somehow, what troubles people isn’t so much being average as settling for it. Everyone knows that averageness is, for most of us, our fate. . . . And so I push to make myself the best. If I’m not the best already, I believe wholeheartedly that I will be. And you expect that of me, too. Whatever the next round of numbers may say. (Atul Gawande)
Gawande set out to understand what makes patient results for some physicians multiple times better than for others. His findings are documented in his book Better, published in 2007. The above quote encapsulates the essence that binds the various attributes of top performers’ mental model. Top performers don’t settle; they continuously look for ways to improve and for opportunities to learn from others how to up their game, incrementally and often.
Our favorite example was a top performer in a global organization; we’ll call him Roger. Roger’s results were an order of magnitude better than the other thousand people in the same role. When we finish collecting data and formulate a draft profile documenting what sets the top performers apart, we submit our report for review to all the people we interviewed. We expected Roger, like most people, to give us some minor comments to help us polish the profile. But, to our surprise, that’s not what happened. Instead, we received several pages of detailed analysis and feedback. Roger had called in his entire support team and spent most of a day discussing, evaluating, and improving the profile. One of the most enlightening comments we received was about how much he and his team were able to learn from the lessons of others. As we reflected on that comment, we realized it was no accident that the top global performer was also the one who spent the most energy and focus learning from others.
In our series on the mental model of top performers, this trait stands alone. Top performers continually strive for improvement. They are never satisfied with the level they achieve, so they never settle for the status quo; they never settle for what others might consider good enough. Top performers push ahead not from a fear of failure but from a true sense of curiosity and the drive to learn from others. This behavior leads to a quiet confidence and a willingness to embrace each challenge as a new opportunity to learn.
Question to Ponder:
- In what areas are you settling for average versus striving for excellence?
In our travels, we’ve become ever more impressed with people. Not necessarily people in general, but people in particular. The lesson we’ve learned, and hope we will continue to learn, is that everyone has a story, and that story usually is filled with amazing attributes and skills. The challenge we all face in the fast-paced age of the digitally connected is to take time to really get to know people, to dig under the surface to uncover their stories, their contributions, and their skills.
Top performers have taught themselves how and when to hit pause. Through practice, they have developed the ability to instinctively identify, develop, and nurture relationships and build valuable networks that provide a vast array of contacts and skills that can help solve the business challenges faced by them or their customers.
This ability to build and leverage a network leads to the misperception that top performers are personally good at almost any challenge placed in front of them. But that’s not the case at all. Typically we find that the real secret to their success is their network, coupled with the willingness to ask for help—help that their acquaintances are happy to provide.
Of course, the expertise involved in successfully building such a network is anything but simple. This type of network requires skillful human interaction that goes far beyond the so-called soft skills typically provided in a professional development curriculum. Skillful human interaction is often the most difficult to develop and the most valuable of all top performer attributes. And, befitting the difficulty and value, this interaction pays the highest personal and organizational dividends as well.
Questions to ponder:
- How well do you know your network? Do you know it well enough to know each person’s underlying story?
In his book The 4-Hour Workweek, author Tim Ferriss makes a number of interesting points, but the one we’ll mention here is the concept of never doing something that someone else can do for you. In Ferriss’s case, he recommends hiring a personal assistant, preferably offshore, to handle mundane tasks such as administration, scheduling, and even research. While that may be too extreme for many, there is an underlying germ of truth in what Ferriss advocates.
We live and work in an extremely busy time. Schedules are driven to the minute, smartphones and other devices keep us constantly tethered and available, and even attention spans are seemingly measured in minutes. Given all those time pressures, we can easily forgo the age-old art of delegation.
When we delegate a task, we’re not casting it away as unimportant. We’re simply giving it to someone who can probably accomplish it equally as well as we could. At least, that’s the mental model of the top performers we’ve met. While average performers hold on tightly to all tasks lest something go wrong, top performers actively seek out partners and colleagues with whom to share the load. A hallmark of those top performers is the pride they take in how well others have accomplished tasks on their behalf. Rather than feeling threatened by someone else’s abilities, they are genuinely pleased and willing to celebrate the other person’s success.
One top performing and very senior banking executive working with ultrahigh–net worth clients delighted in enabling other members of her team to handle frequent communications with her clients. Her view was that involving others from the bank, properly aligned and reaching out, simply meant more and better communications with the client—resulting in a more satisfying client experience. She was right, and her results proved it.
Questions to ponder:
- What tasks do you jealously guard, and which do you appropriately delegate? Are you leveraging your time to maximum advantage?
Contract employees have an unusual work life. They travel from job to job and place to place. Each new assignment offers new challenges ranging from major ones, like understanding the work itself, to the trivial, like finding the way through a new building. But no challenge is more difficult than identifying and developing relationships with allies who can help ensure success in the assignment.
A colleague who thrives as a contractor once offered a bit of advice that seemed strange: as soon as he starts a new assignment, he seeks out the “hardware guy or gal” within the information technology (IT) group and treats that person to lunch. In his experience, no one pays much attention to the IT hardware team, and certainly very few people appreciate just how valuable a relationship with the hardware team can be. With one simple and easy gesture, our colleague secures access to the best equipment, key insider knowledge about who else in the IT department is skilled and able to help in other areas, and a host of other advantages.
The real lesson? You never know where allies will be found. Seeking out potential allies requires a focused effort to identify them and cultivate relationships with them. Of course, developing new acquaintances under the thinly veiled guise of a mutually beneficial relationship while focusing exclusively on what someone can do for you is a poor approach that’s likely to fail. Truly exploring how you can help someone and what you have in common and treating him or her with respect is the more rewarding and sound approach.
Top performers like our colleague know this intuitively. In our interviews, we are always struck by how much credit top performers immediately give to others who help them along the path of success.
Questions to ponder:
- What allies have you found in unlikely places? Are you being intentional about cultivating sincere and mutually beneficial relationships?
In mountain biking, every rider quickly learns an important lesson: the bike will go where the eyes are looking. If you look at a rock, you will likely hit the rock—even if you are trying to avoid it. If you look at the smooth space next to the rock, your wheels will usually roll safely through that space.
The same is true of performance: where you focus is where you will usually go. Top performers innately understand and practice this concept. They know where they want to end up, and they keep their focus on that end goal.
In practice that means top performers start with the strategic and then deal with the tactical. The strategic is the end goal: where they want to end up, what they want to achieve, what good looks like. Then, as they navigate their way through the various twists and turns of daily work, they have a sound basis for making tactical decisions.
This principle is manifested in the difference between the way top and average performers in business treat the everyday meetings and phone calls required to execute their business strategy. Average performers often view each contact as an end in itself; they try to “win” each of those encounters. In contrast, top performers focus on the longer-term intent expressed in their business strategy, their mental model of success, and they execute each encounter in a way that serves to move them closer to that strategic goal. If the specific objective of the call is not met, top performers seek to learn from the interaction and adjust their plan. If that requires taking a step backward or sideways rather than forward, so be it. They never lose focus.
Questions to ponder:
- Where is your focus? Are you looking at the rock or the path?
This is the second article in our miniseries on some of the nuances of the mental models held by top performers. In our first article, we talked about how the same hurdle can be seen either as a speed bump or a major barrier. Top performers, of course, see hurdles as mere speed bumps that barely hinder their progress. In this article, we’ll discuss the notion of relational bank accounts.
Stephen Covey introduced the metaphor of an emotional bank account in his seminal work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. When you need to withdraw money from a bank, you must have first deposited the money. Obvious, right? That same inescapable logic also extends to relationships. If you want to build trusting relationships that may occasionally require withdrawals, you must first make some deposits. Top performers innately recognize this truth and proactively embrace this concept in their daily work by making deposits in the accounts of their various relationships immediately, well in advance of and irrespective of any future and yet unidentified needs on their part.
When the time for withdrawals comes, top performers have built the trust required to ask for an introduction or advice or even something as simple as a return call. They are acutely aware, however, that trying to make a withdrawal without first filling their relationship account with deposits puts a strain on any relationship.
In a straightforward example, a top performing sales professional we recently interviewed told us how she would arrive at a potential new client’s and immediately try to identify issues she and her company could help resolve. She didn’t wait to be asked, and she didn’t ask to be compensated in any way. She was simply making deposits into a relational account. Whether she ever would need to make any withdrawals was not part of her thinking process. But she knew the deposits were there if she ever needed to ask for help.
Question to ponder:
- How is your relational account balance with the people in your network?
You’ve probably heard the old saying that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude. While that may be true when it comes to travels, it’s especially true when it comes to the mental model of top performers.
Too often people focus on barriers and decide that fighting through the barrier to get things done is just too hard. Barriers make performance an ordeal. They make everything more difficult and, in many cases, people are stopped altogether.
Top performers, however, view barriers as mere speed bumps to be overcome—sometimes quickly—sometimes over time. Once over the speed bump, top performers are free to continue their relentless pursuit of excellence. Barriers are just part of the adventure. Or, in the words of another pithy saying “the best views come after the steepest climbs.” Top performers know that and keep their focus on the view at the end of the climb.
What kind of barriers fit this description? In a recent project involving senior executives, average performers often talked about the complex matrix organization as a significant barrier to their being able to accomplish their goals. The matrix was too complicated, required too much time to understand and navigate, and left communications channels too confused.
Meanwhile, the top performing executives talked about the same matrix in very different terms. To them, the matrix was a key to how they got things done. They welcomed the matrix because it offered so many avenues to build relationships, enlist help, and accomplish their goals.
To one group, a barrier is an ordeal; to the top performers, it’s simply part of the path on their adventure.
Question to ponder:
- How do you and your team see obstacles, as barriers or as speed bumps that are part of the adventure?
We recently completed a client presentation on the importance of top performers and how their view of their work provides valuable data for management in the creation of procedures, training, organizational design, and other important elements in a high-performing culture.
At a casual lunch afterward, we were asked how we got started.
We immediately began sharing stories about early clients and some of our first investigations of top performers. This was followed quickly by some unintentional chest thumping about significant successes with other clients.
Later, on the drive home from the airport after a two-hour plane ride, it dawned on us: we both trace our starts in this rewarding field to the guidance and mentoring provided by Dr. Paul Elliott, who, in the late eighties and early nineties, was deeply involved with the concept of top performance and the importance of accomplishments or outcomes.
Nothing of significance seems to come easy. Though it seemed to make common sense that we could learn from those whose performance stands out from their peers, it took several months and many attempts by Paul for the significance of outcomes to sink in. The resultant perspective has forever changed our views on performance inside and outside the workplace. The significance of this shift in perspective is best summed up by another of Paul’s pupils who said, “Once you get it, you can’t unsee it.”
Should he be asked, Paul would likely credit his own “conversion” to mentoring by Dr. Joe Harless, creator of Accomplishment Based Curriculum Design. And before his death, Joe, in turn, credited his insights to his direct work with psychologist Thomas Gilbert, author of Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, who is considered by most to be the father of human performance technology (HPT), and the better known B. F. Skinner, founder of what is called radical behaviorism.
As you can see, we are privileged to be able to stand on the shoulders of a long line of studied individuals who make it possible for us to see farther than we thought possible. We most certainly and simply say thank you to all—and mostly to Paul—for now that we have seen it, it’s impossible unsee it.
Question to Ponder:
- Can you see it?
We speak often about the notion of a mental model. But what, exactly, is a mental model?
We can add to the definition from the work of Jens Rasmussen concerning human performance in the workplace. In his description of mental models, Rasmussen states that
meaningful interaction with an environment depends upon the existence of a set of invariant constraints in the relationships among events in the environment and between human actions and their effects. The implications of the foregoing discussion is that purposive human behavior must be based on an internal representation of these constraints.1
As they apply to the workplace, those definitions are good places to start, but we’d make some changes. We are very particular about whose thought processes we consider. We focus on the thought processes of proven performers who exhibit top performance in the workplace. In our experience, top and average performers hold vastly different mental models of the work to be accomplished. In Wikipedia’s terms, their thought processes are different. As a result, top and average performers view their real world differently and obtain different results from their efforts in that real world.
As previously mentioned, we differ from Wikipedia because we concentrate our studies on the workplace. This is a more narrow focus of what Wikipedia calls the real world. We focus on how things work in the work arena, although many of the same principles apply to other areas of endeavor.
So here’s our slightly modified definition of mental model: an explanation of a top performer’s purposeful thought process about how things work or how top performers work to accomplish meaningful results in their work environment.
In the next several blog posts, we’ll explore some common aspects we’ve observed about the mental model of top performers.
Questions to ponder:
- What is your mental model of how you accomplish work in your environment? Is your mental model useful in achieving high levels of success in the work you do?
1 Jens Rasmussen, “Skills, Rules, and Knowledge; Signals, Signs and Symbols, and Other Distinctions in Human Performance Models,” IEEE Transactional Systems, Man, and Cybernetics SMC-13, no. 3 (May 1983), doi: 10.1109/TSMC.1983.6313160.
We’ve discussed each of the four quadrants in our attention matrix. We’ve given an idea of what characterizes people and organizations who find themselves in each quadrant, and we’ve outlined a bit of the results from being in that quadrant.
So as a recap, here are the four quadrants again:
|Distracted||Management’s flavor of the month with lots of constantly changing priorities||Frenzied workplace, little focus, no clear purpose|
|Activity Focus||Lots of energy and attention spent on activities that don’t really matter||People meeting or exceeding targets for goals that don’t have an impact on organizational success|
|Missed Opportunity||A few key people overtaxed and stretched too thin; relies on a talent-only strategy||Not enough capable talent producing at the levels needed for the organization to grow and thrive; development is ignored
|Outcome Focus||People know the critical outcomes they should produce and spend focused time producing them; coaching and organizational systems support production of the outcomes||Across the board positive shift in performance. Same cost yields more to the bottom line. Individual role excellence driving organizational and business success!|
Questions to ponder:
- Is your organization in the outcomes focused quadrant? If not, how do you begin the journey to get there?