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?