In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the Heath brothers tell about an experiment Chip Heath conducts at Stanford University.
Chip breaks his class into small teams, gives each team a bunch of statistics about inner-city crime and asks them to develop and present a set of recommendations for how to reduce inner-city crime. Each team does its work, prepares its message and delivers its pitch to the other teams. The team members grade each other’s presentation, which ensures that everyone actually pays attention to all the pitches.
Ten minutes after the presentations, Heath unexpectedly asks the students to take out a sheet of paper and write down all the key points they remember from the presentations. After only ten minutes, only 5 percent of his students remember any individual statistics, but 63 percent of the students remember the stories that were told by each of the teams.
We are a storytelling people and yet we spend our careers trying to eliminate stories and turn them into bullet points. Three bullet points per slide with three subbullets, please. Oh please!
One of the best ways we elicit information from top performers is by asking them to tell us a story: a story about a client with whom they built a relationship or a problem they overcame or other ways they think about and produce their excellent results. Interestingly, top performers are all adept at telling us their stories. Average performers struggle to relay what they do and the way they spend their time into the meaningful context of a story.
We ask ourselves, do storytellers make the best performers? Or do the best performers become good storytellers? Either way, we are confident that the ability to convey their work in a meaningful story is a key marker of top performers, and it is a skill that can be nurtured and improved upon by each of us.
Question to ponder:
- Does your culture value and reward stories or bullet points?
The best views come after the toughest climbs. Anyone who has spent much time outdoors appreciates the truth of that adage. But when it comes to our work lives, we expect things to be easy—for the rough spots to be smoothed out and the barriers removed from our assigned path. Unfortunately, that’s not the way things usually work.
The barriers persist and performers get frustrated, often to the point of not getting things done. Not so with top performers. One of the common perspectives we’ve observed in top performers across all types of roles is that they are resolute.
Top performers don’t let things stand in the way. Perhaps that’s a result of their having already decided on the few priorities (the critical outcomes) that really matter, and so they know those goals have to be met for them to be successful. Or perhaps being resolute in their pursuits is just something top performers all have in common. Whatever the reason, we’ve come to realize the importance of this trait in achieving top performance.
Of course, leaders in organizations take on the responsibility of eliminating or reducing barriers. One great way to do that is to observe how top performers get through or around the barriers and then study that approach to identify ways to eliminate the barriers. All performers will benefit from improvements that smooth the way to excellence.
Question to ponder:
- Does your organization appreciate and reward the resolute?
Robert Kennedy, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, said: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Top performers share Kennedy and Shaw’s perspective. They have mastered the art of seeking the possible rather than focusing on the easily attainable. That perspective is one of the key differences that sets top performers apart. Good performers set their sights on the visible horizon; top performers see farther and reach higher—and they usually achieve much loftier goals.
Asking why not? is a hallmark of top performers. This one simple question drives them to go after the big hairy audacious goal while also providing the impetus behind numerous small innovations that drive daily efficiency and a cycle of continuous improvement. This perspective shows up in practically everything top performers say and do: the words they use to express their goals, the way they describe their tasks, and, most importantly, the measures they use to define their success.
Why not change your horizon? Why not set goals and associated measures that stretch your thinking—that turn even the most mundane tasks or roles into personal challenges that toss the visible horizon aside and ask, as Shaw and Kennedy did, “Why not?”? In our work with top performers, we find that this mindset lies behind many of the outcomes that top performers produce.
Question to ponder:
- When was the last time you or your organization asked why not?
We live in an age of instant gratification. We see it, we want it, we get it. We complain when receiving an Amazon Prime order takes a whopping two days. And don’t even think about waiting over a minute for a new app to download!
We all know that salespeople are the epitome of the instant gratification culture. They focus on short-term sales results and are furious when anything gets in the way of the immediate sale. It’s all about making quota, right?
Well, maybe not.
We spend a lot of time analyzing how top salespeople excel in various contexts. Recently a very successful, highly compensated sales rep in a complex sales environment told us he wasn’t focusing on the current year. He had a new territory with new customers. That, combined with a complex sales cycle, meant the current year was pretty much a write-off for him. Instead, he was focusing on establishing the foundations that would pay off in the next year and then come to full fruition in the following year and beyond.
That patience, the ability to take a long-term view rather than a short-term view, is a hallmark of successful consultative salespeople as well as those in other roles.
Question to ponder:
- Do your leaders encourage taking a purposeful long-term view, or do they overemphasize immediate gratification?
How many times have you heard someone say something like: “It’s just too hard to get anything done in this organization”? Or maybe you’ve said it yourself. Organizations create bureaucracy. Bureaucracy creates friction. Friction makes it hard to get things done. We all understand that—well, maybe not all of us.
We recently met with a top performer in a Global 2000 organization. We had already connected with several people in various leadership roles, so we thought we had a pretty good handle on what to expect from our discussion with the top performers. Leadership had primed us to expect some complaints about the administrative hassles of getting work done. So we probed the top performer about how she deals with those difficulties.
Imagine our surprise when she responded: “It’s not really a hassle. It’s just the way things are around here.” She clearly did not share the view that bureaucracy prevented her from accomplishing her goals. Instead, she had what we’ve come to call the hygiene perspective of bureaucracy.
That perspective is shared by top performers across roles and industries. Getting things done in a bureaucracy is just a hygiene factor: It is the way it is, so get used to it. Don’t complain about it. Just do what you have to do so you can move on to other, more valuable tasks that produce outcomes that really matter.
Now this was our question to leadership: if you thought a problem was impacting performance, then why haven’t you already done something about it? But that’s a topic for another day.
Question to ponder:
- How do you view bureaucracy?
One of the questions we’re frequently asked is “what do top performers have in common?” Leaders understand that each role is unique and that top performance in each of those roles is also unique. In other words, content is king (how a top performer produces excellence), and context is queen (the specifics of the role, the organization, and the mission). But people still want to know whether there are some commonalities that apply across multiple roles. Said another way, are there traits that can help determine whether a person is likely to be successful in any role in which he or she is placed?
So to that end, we’ve taken a look at scores of roles across dozens of organizations to see what commonalities emerge. Somewhat to our surprise and delight, there are, in fact, several characteristics that stand out as common attributes or traits. We do not represent these traits as exhaustively or conclusively proven predictors of success. Nor are we positioning the lack of any given trait as a diagnosis of why someone may not have excelled. All we are saying is that top performers in disparate roles from different organizations across multiple industries often share a few core traits that warrant further discussion, particularly if you are trying to recruit and select talent for your organization. We readily admit that we have a built-in selection bias—we are looking at the traits of proven top performers. We also admit that our sample only includes a certain type of role: roles that leaders have decided are crucial for driving organizational success. But with those caveats, we will share our observations over the next several blog posts. We welcome your feedback, your challenges, and your questions as we jointly seek to gain insight from these observations.
Questions to ponder:
- Do your top performers seem to have a few core characteristics in common?
- Do you select people based on characteristics, skill sets, experience, or a blend of all three?
Recently several of us were discussing the question of whether outcomes and competencies can coexist. If you’ve followed our blog for long, you’ll remember that we’ve written about how competencies are too general to help improve the performance and productivity of people in specific roles. But the question still comes up frequently, so here is our answer.
Yes, they can coexist. This happens when we acknowledge that the two approaches are completely different and can help organizations meet different challenges. For managers who are striving to improve their hiring processes by recruiting better, stronger candidates that fit a desired set of characteristics, competencies can be very helpful. A well-designed set of competencies can provide a model for the type of employee an organization is seeking. A significant but rarely considered nuance in that process is the notion that hiring can be either internal or external. The implications are that competencies can also help when creating career-development models for people as they define their journey through the various roles in the organization.
However, once employees land in a role, the competency model will not help them perform in that role. Many organizations make the mistake of attempting to use a general competency model to help people become excellent in their roles. Only an outcomes model can do that.
Question to ponder:
- Is your organization clear on the difference between competencies and outcomes-based competence?
As we have previously discussed, a modern and effective coaching culture is best evidenced by three attributes:
- Role clarity and transparent conversations regarding expectations
- Practiced ability of supervisors to help individuals discover what gets in the way of people achieving success in their roles
- A tangible way to measure and report the levels of success of individuals, teams, and organizations in producing the value expected by the organization
Today we would like to dig deeper into the first attribute:
Role Clarity and Transparent Conversations Regarding Expectations
The notion of coaching in organizations has evolved over the last forty years. Almost by necessity, coaching has become synonymous with various techniques for holding a conversation between the team leader and a team member. Two of the most prevalent coaching approaches today are GROW (goal, reality, options, will) and CLEAR (contracting, listening, exploring, action, review). While these methods have their differences, they fundamentally establish the same structured flow to a coaching conversation.
- Prepare and clarify
- Listen/share stories
- Discuss to form potential joint solutions
- Define forward-looking actions
- Follow-up and adjust
Both these models are well structured and provide a powerful foundation. However, when it comes to content, the trend with these models is for team members to first identify the topics they would like to discuss. Typically, few guidelines are placed on the creation of the topics, and the subjects tend to gravitate toward the individual’s interest. This interest, however, does not always relate to the individual’s performance within his or her current role. While pursuing this approach may be worthwhile, it doesn’t usually lead to improved performance within the organization.
This lack of ability to impact business performance stems from the fact that the collective set of conversations for a given role or specific area of the business are not aligned to create a common pursuit. As an example, let’s consider a retail organization and the relationship between the district manager and store manager. If 100 district managers are each responsible for coaching ten store managers and each store manager is driving his or her personal agenda, the coaching conversation between district managers and store managers will lead in 1,000 disparate directions. The conversations will do little to drive a standard of excellence across the district, much less across the store network. In effect 1,000 different standards of excellence will have been established.
In all likelihood, modern-day coaching has its intent, if not its roots, in the apprenticeship model that has been around for decades. Skilled masters’ goals were to equip their apprentices to produce in specific roles with the speed and quality that approached their own abilities. Undoubtedly the best masters were good communicators who were as good at structuring conversations as they were at their craft. The difference between their coaching conversations and the conversations facilitated by today’s models was that the master drove the content of the conversation. Their conversations centered on standards of excellence they had developed and internalized over time.
Clearly the apprenticeship model, in its pure form, is not scalable in today’s organizations. The ten store managers in our example are spread over a wide geographic area, greatly limiting the time the district manager can spend with any one manager. This is where role-based outcomes enter the picture. Role-based outcomes are used to capture the mental model of expert and top performing store managers. These outcomes form the standards of excellence for the store manager role and can be used by all 100 district managers to guide their store managers to consistently perform at the quality level required and expected by the organization.
To see noticeable business benefits from coaching, today’s best coaching organizations are clear on the standards of excellence they want to promulgate and how these standards will help specific roles drive business results.
Identifying the standards (or outcomes) is not enough, however. Today’s leaders must also develop an uncanny ability to help their team members realize what is getting in the way of producing outcomes consistently and to the standards expected by the organization. We will cover that aspect of coaching in the next post in this series.
Question to ponder:
- What are the role-specific standards of excellence that your organization considers and encourages leaders to coach to?
Soccer, at its core, is a very simple game: the players on one team try to kick the ball into a goal while the other team tries to stop them. If you’ve ever had the joyful opportunity to watch little kids play soccer, you understand how maddeningly simple yet frustrating that concept can be. When little kids play soccer, they usually just swarm around the ball, all trying to kick it at the same time. Occasionally the ball will pop out of the throng and the kids will all chase it.
Watching professionals play makes soccer seem like a different game altogether. Same number of people, same two goals and one ball, same simple objective: kick the ball into the other team’s goal. But everything else is different. The players spread out across the field, the ball is passed crisply from player to player, and players are always moving—with or without the ball.
The same comparison can be made of teams in organizations, except age is not the defining characteristic, role clarity is.
In corporate teams, just like in soccer, playing your position on the team makes all the difference. Of course, to play your position, you must know your position. In soccer, there are forwards, midfielders, backs, and goalies. Each position has a unique and critical role to play for the team to win. In organizational teams, knowing what role each member is playing is critical for the team to win.
Unfortunately, too many corporate teams operate just like kids’ soccer teams: swarming around without any clear roles. Make sure each team member has a clearly defined role, knows that role, and understands how to execute that role with excellence.
Question to ponder:
- Do all your team members know their roles, or are they swarming?
The idea of coaching in the workplace has been around for decades, and though it has enjoyed some periods of popularity and respect, overall, it struggles to gain the traction needed to become embedded in corporate cultures in a meaningful way. In a large part, the concept has suffered at the hands of the term itself. The term coaching tends to have different meanings to different people, largely based on individual experiences. These individual interpretations create an unsettled coaching culture, especially as each subsequent leader brings his or her own definition, which then undermines any previous progress and inevitably hits the reset button on that organization’s practice of coaching.
Of course, we cannot write on the topic of coaching without adding our own definition to the fray. Based on our experience, research, and mission to build systematic approaches to improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals, we offer a comprehensive definition of the term.
The main tenet of our definition is that coaching is not a process. Processes may aid the establishment of coaching within a company, but defining a process cannot produce true coaching. Coaching is instead better defined as a culture, “the way things get done around here.” A coaching culture is best evidenced by
- role clarity and transparent conversations regarding expectations
- the practiced ability of supervisors to help individuals discover what gets in each person’s way of achieving success in his or her role
- a tangible way to measure and report levels of success accomplished by individuals, teams, and organizations to produce the value expected by the organization
We will address each of these factors, in order, as we continue the coaching series. Notably absent from this list is any mention of a lack of time to coach. As you will recall from our introductory blog on this topic, a lack of time is the most explicit and common reason given for why coaching does not occur in organizations today. The essentials listed above can profoundly impact the perceived lack of time. Our discussion will include how each of these cultural norms helps to create more time.
Question to ponder:
- How does your organization currently define coaching?