One of the premises of the TOPS model is analyzing performance through the eyes of the top performers. The idea, of course, is to discern what sets those top performers apart from their average performing peers.
But what happens if there are no top performers to model? How does one determine outcomes if no one is producing those top outcomes to emulate?
When might such a scenario exist? One such situation might be a new role that isn’t yet being performed. Often when a company reorganizes, new roles are created. In those cases, there might, in fact, be a brand new role that has never been performed before.
Another similar situation is when roles have changed substantially due to a change in the mission of an organization. Or perhaps roles have been combined or split to create a set of new roles.
So how do we recommend handling these situations?
It’s exceedingly rare that no part of the role has ever existed. If roles have been combined or split, the best approach is to study the earlier versions of the roles. One significant advantage of mapping the outcomes of a role is that those individual outcomes can then be combined or recombined with others to form new roles. The outcomes haven’t changed. What has changed is which role will produce which outcome. So analyzing the performance of the top people from the previous incarnation is a good strategy.
If no such previous roles exist, then we work with the stakeholders and managers of the new roles to map an aspirational view of the role. In other words, how we think the role should be performed. Obviously, we won’t have the benefit of the wisdom of the top performers, but this method usually provides a reasonable first approximation of the outcomes and how they should be produced.
Taking that second approach demands a commitment from the stakeholders of the organization to accept an iterative solution. They will rely on the aspirational model for the first cut, but immediately look for top performers to emerge and then analyze what those performers have done to separate themselves from others. The leadership will then remap the role based on those lessons learned. A good frequency for this launch and reevaluation process is about six to twelve months. That usually provides sufficient time to identify differences in performance.
Questions to ponder:
- Do you have new roles in your organization? Or are those new roles simply new variations of previous roles?
All 128 Division I college football teams are just wrapping up spring training. The senior players are only memories. The incoming class hasn’t yet arrived. And hopes for a successful season are as plentiful as flower blossoms and tree buds.
This flow of players through college football teams is a microcosm of the flow of people and talent through corporations today. The promise of thirty-year employment has long vanished, and with the arrival of the millennial workforce, corporations are struggling with the reality of a “learn-and-leave” mindset. The importance of continuously recruiting new players for college football programs and modern corporations alike has become paramount.
The notion of recruiting has always fascinated us. The most common mantra heard in the hallways of companies today is “hire only the best.” At first blush, this seems to make perfect sense. The implication is that hiring only the best will result in top performance. How true is this assertion? As examining this premise across corporations proves difficult, let’s take a look through the world of college football.
The 2015 college football season ended with Alabama regaining its throne after a convincing victory over Clemson in the title game. Using the final season rankings as our measure of performance, let’s examine the performance ranking of all 128 Division I teams. What influence did recruiting have on this ultimate result?
Every year around this time, each college football program is ranked on the number and quality of its incoming recruits. We’ve compared these two sets of rankings in the chart below. The final standing is based on the 2015 win–loss records. The recruiting rankings are from 2013. We picked this year as the very best players in the college game only stay around for two of the four years they are eligible to play.
Last year’s recruiting headlines might read
Alabama #1 in Both Recruiting and Final Standings
As you can see, Alabama has a perfect correlation. The team was ranked number one in recruiting and number one in performance. This result, of course, gives credence to the adage, “hire only the best.”
But another significant headline regarding recruiting might read
Navy Finishes the Season at #17 despite Ranking 112th in Recruiting
Navy’s program provides a strong counterargument to the adage that recruiting is the number one priority. Not only does this ranking indicate that factors exist beyond recruiting, Navy’s particular story demonstrates that there are ways to succeed that do not rely on recruiting. When we look at the full spectrum of 128 schools, we can clearly see that while success can be positively impacted by recruiting, it is dependent on more than simply hiring the best.
Let’s look closer:
- Three top twenty-five schools had a strong correlation between their recruiting and their final rankings: Alabama, Ohio State, and Notre Dame
- Of the top twenty-five recruiting schools, nine (or 36 percent) finished the season within +/- 10 percent of their recruiting ranking
- This breakdown holds for all 128 teams:
- 34 percent fell within the +/- correlated recruiting range
- 32 percent outperformed their recruiting expectations
- 34 percent underperformed their recruiting expectations
- Four schools in additional to Navy significantly outperformed their recruiting rankings
- Houston (7th in performance/76th in recruiting)
- Utah (18th in performance/67th in recruiting)
- Iowa (8th in performance/59th in recruiting)
- TCU (9th in performance/43rd in recruiting)
- Five schools had some clear issues and significantly underperformed their recruiting rankings
- Auburn (60th in performance/6th in recruiting)
- Texas A&M (45th in performance/5th in recruiting)
- Texas (74th in performance/16th in recruiting)
- South Carolina (95th in performance/19th in recruiting)
- Kentucky (83rd in performance/22nd in recruiting)
The story painted by this data indicates that while top talent is important, what happens to these potentially high performers when they arrive is equally important: How strong is the program they enter? Does it continue to develop top performers? Is leadership aligned around a clear strategy?
Questions to ponder:
- How would you rate your recruiting program?
- What does your development program look like for your critical roles?
- Are your leaders aligned around your strategy?
That’s a great question and, as usual, the answer is—it depends.
We consider a few factors when recommending how many people should be on the interview list:
- Contact time. We usually target forty contact hours with top performers. This ideal target has proven valid across many types of roles and industries. We define an hour of contact time as one hour spent with one performer. So interviewing one person for two hours or two people for one hour will each result in two contact hours.
- Population size. The number of performers in the role obviously plays a big part in deciding how many people should be on the interview list. We usually try to reach at least 5–10 percent of the performer population. This number is obviously pretty flexible. If there are two thousand performers, it’s not realistic to interview two hundred of them. Nor is it necessary. On the other side of the scale, if just twenty people are in a critical role, then interviewing only one or two might not be sufficient.
- Population variations. Each population usually has some significant variations such as geography, organization, or even culture. Each of the identified variations should be represented.
- Number of top performers. Of course, this is the most important factor. If there’s only one top performer and that person represents the model others should be following, then it’s quite reasonable to develop the performance map based on that one person.
Using the above factors on a recent project, we developed what we thought was a reasonable interview list. It included samples of different organizational components and the different geographies involved. But after reviewing the list, the business leader greatly increased it. He was looking past the actual data collection and considering the implementation of the project. He knew that gaining the buy-in of critical stakeholders across the organization would require including some of their performers on the interview list. While that increased the short-term costs of the project, it also shortened the time needed to roll out the process and achieve the desired business results. A very wise business leader indeed!
Questions to ponder:
- What are the population characteristics for your critical roles? How many people would need to be included to get a solid representation of top performance across the roles?
One common challenge we face is from organizations that want to include average performers on the list of those to be interviewed for a TOPS project. The reasoning is usually something along the lines of wanting to more fully understand the differences between top and average performance. While that is a laudable aim, in reality it doesn’t really help the overall goal of wanting to improve individual performance to deliver better business results. Here’s the logic: The purpose of the project is to establish a model of excellent performance that all performers can seek to emulate. The better the model, the higher the probability of having a significant impact. But if the model is watered down in any way, then the results will be too.
There is an old saying: “If you study bad performance and try to avoid it, the best you can achieve is not bad.” But not bad is not what we want—we want, and businesses need, great results. The best way to achieve great results is to start by studying those who produce great results.
Think about a map. Would you rather have a detailed map of where you want to go or a more general map of a lot of places that you would rather not go? Of course the answer is obvious. We need to know as much as possible about where we want to go.
The same is true of mapping performance. We need to understand as much as possible about what top performance looks like so we will know how to achieve it and, maybe more importantly, we will know when we get there. By giving performers a detailed map of what great looks like, they are more likely to deliver those results.
Questions to ponder:
- Are you establishing targets that will deliver great instead of average results? How can you be sure?
We are often asked to use surveys in the process of mapping how top performers do their work. But we have a strong bias toward conducting interviews and observations. That raises the question: what’s wrong with surveying?
Our answer is “nothing.” Of course, that answer has some caveats.
Surveys are a valid tool to use in several situations, but it’s important to understand their limitations. Those limitations include
- Poor response rates. People are inundated with paperwork, and many will not respond. If they do, they may consider the survey a paperwork exercise and not devote the attention it deserves. Thinking through the nuances of top performance is difficult and takes significant time.
- Lack of follow-up. The strength of interviewing and observing is the ability to dig more deeply into particular subjects to explore exactly how something is done. For example, when a top performer visibly hesitates and processes before answering, that area is ripe for follow-up questions to more fully understand the person’s thought process. That type of scrutiny simply can’t be done with a survey.
- Lack of targeting. Surveys, by their nature, are designed to cast a wide net. Interviews and observations, on the other hand, are designed for more targeted applications. In our case, we specifically target top performers and we really don’t need or want to cast a wide net.
So with those limitations, why is there nothing wrong with using surveys? As with many questions, the context matters.
If the context is a new or greatly changing job role, then it’s quite possible there are no existing top performers. In that case, a survey can provide a great start for mapping the performance of those roles.
If resource or other project constraints make it challenging to interview and observe top performers, then surveying those top performers can be a reasonable substitute. Just be mindful of the limitations noted above.
Questions to ponder:
- Does your organization rely on surveys exclusively or use them as an appropriate tool? Do you have a deliberate process for deciding when and how to use surveys?
Rarely does everyone agree on how a particular job or role should be performed. As an insurance adjuster friend used to say: “My job is to sort out all the versions of the truth to find the true truth.” That’s often our job: sorting out the various opinions, often strongly held, to decide how the job should be mapped.
Differences of opinion usually occur in two flavors:
- Between performers
- Between performers and managers
The first is the hardest to discern and the easiest to deal with. The key is to rely on the business goals established at the beginning of the project. (You did clarify the business goals, right?)
Recently a pharmaceutical company was planning a new product launch and wanted to improve its sales landscape to help ensure a successful launch. To that end, the management team wanted to identify the top performers across the sales force. The initial list was based simply on the top sales producers. But when we dug in more deeply, the managers realized that just being a top producer might not be the best metric for helping the new product launch. Instead, they established three criteria. They identified the reps who
- Consistently exceeded sales targets. Sales matter!
- Reached the highest territory penetration. Having sales from a broad base of customers was considered superior to having lots of sales from a few customers. The goal was to have a broad customer base to launch the new product to.
- Maintained the highest customer relationship ratings. Better relationships would translate into an increased ability to discuss and introduce the new product.
Needless to say, the second list was significantly different from the first. And the resulting performance map was very different from what it would have been if only top sales producers were included.
The second flavor is the easiest to discern but often the hardest to deal with. Managers will remember how to do the job and want the performance map to be based on those memories. But their memories are often faulty. They are no longer performing the job and therefore don’t have a grasp of the current nuances. The challenge is that they are, after all, managers. And as managers, they want to have the final say. Hence the challenge. Time and energy spent aligning managers to the importance of modeling current top performance is worthwhile.
Question to ponder:
- Do you understand the desired business impacts enough to properly create a list of top performers?
The first step is to identify the top performers. All too often, leaders assume that top performers are the most senior, typically either those who have been in their roles the longest or, worse yet, performed so well that they were promoted into management roles. More on that group in a minute.
First of all, what about the idea that the most senior, usually also the longest tenured, are also the top performers? We would answer with a definite maybe. The problem with that assumption is just that: it’s an assumption. But it’s based on the wrong criteria. In many organizations, promotion to senior status within a role comes from tenure more often than competence. Organizations have a strong tendency to elevate people simply because they have persisted and stuck it out longer than others. But that may not correlate with sustained superior performance, which is the only criteria we should be using when identifying top performers.
So what are the hallmarks of sustained superior performance? Depending on the type of role, there are various indicators. In many roles, such as in call-center or sales organizations, data can be analyzed based on the organization’s business goals. If customer loyalty is a primary goal, then which representatives have the highest satisfaction scores or the best Net Promoter Scores? If the goal is customer expansion, who generates and closes the most new leads? If the goal is customer growth, who garners the largest share of the budget? Note that we didn’t simply ask who generates the most revenue. We’ve found that to be a rather poor indicator of top performance. Revenue is, of course, critical. But it’s usually a level or two removed from what performers can really deliver. Revenue is a result, a way to keep score, but it may not be the best indicator of front line performance.
What about those former performers who are now managers? Well, they aren’t in those roles any longer. That presents two reasons not to select them. First they were selected (we hope) because of their potential to excel in a different role from the one they were in. There are innumerable stories in every organization about promoting the best sales representative who then turned out to be a mediocre sales manager. Or just the opposite: sometimes a mediocre sales representative who possesses exceptional leadership and management skills turns out to be a great sales manager.
Second, but related to the first reason, these managers are no longer performing the job. Therefore, they can no longer demonstrate through observation those nuances that mark an unconsciously competent top performer.
Questions to ponder:
- For your critical roles, who are the top performers? On what basis do you know?
We hear it all the time: interviewing top performers won’t work because they want to keep secret the strategies that make them top performers.
On the surface, that makes sense. In our hypercompetitive business environment, why would people willingly share the hard-earned tricks that propelled them to the top of their professions? Now that they’ve arrived, wouldn’t they just keep those tricks secret and try to prevent anyone else from learning them? It’s sort of like asking anglers to share the locations of their favorite fishing holes. Not gonna happen!
But our experience is just the opposite. Top performers seem more than willing to share everything they know and do. There is rarely any attempt to hide or mislead in any aspect.
Why? We have some speculations.
First, we find that top performers rarely think of themselves in those terms. They are typically self-deprecating and humble. They’re just doing their jobs the best way they understand how to and they’re more than willing to share on that basis. On a favorite project of ours, a top performer told us: “Doing this extra step helps me sort out my priorities a little better. It’s a little extra work for me, and I’m sure no one else has to do it this way, but it seems to work for me.” Of course, some version of that statement was said by eighteen of the top twenty-one performers in the organization—each taking essentially the same extra step and reaping the benefits of superior results.
Second, more often than not, top performers think everyone else already knows at least as much as they know. If they’ve figured something out, they very often assume that everyone else has figured out the same thing. After all, they reason, it just makes sense to do it this way. As a result, they aren’t really sharing a secret because they don’t actually have any secrets. Everyone starts with the same training to do the same work, so it makes sense for everyone to figure out the same shortcuts, tricks and so-called secrets.
Third, and perhaps most heartening, is that most top performers seem to share a trait of not just being willing but actually wanting to help others. We’ve been thrilled to discover top performers who also became the go-to people in their roles when others need help or advice. They are good, they are comfortable being good, and they like to help others become better.
Fourth, and most telling, is top performers have a drive to get better. They are constantly looking to better understand their jobs and for ways to get better. In a recent project, the top performer, whose results were much better than the average and who was also one of the busiest people in the organization, was asked to review a draft TOPS profile. We hoped he would be able to spare a few precious minutes to identify any glaring errors or omissions. Instead, he gave us a four-page document with specific, thoughtful, and insightful comments. Instead of giving a cursory review, he had convened his entire team and spent a full day going through the profile, not just reviewing the document but also their own processes. They identified where they were strong and where they could improve and then worked out specific changes to how they operated as a team. In the review document, this top performer thanked us for providing him and his team with some great data that they anticipated would dramatically improve their results in the coming year. Not bad for a team that was already producing better-than-expected results.
Questions to ponder:
- Is your organization fostering secretive or open behavior? What steps could leadership take to shift toward a more open, collaborative environment?
“In the Florida State University study, less than 20 percent of employees are certain they know what is expected of them at work each day, with the majority reporting varying levels of clarity concerning responsibilities, ranging from ‘some’ to ‘complete’ ambiguity.” (See more at Business News Daily.)
What an amazing statement! Put another way, over 80 percent of people don’t really know what their jobs are—what they are supposed to produce to be successful. How can that be? Have leaders simply not told them? Or could it be that the jobs have never been documented in an understandable way?
Or maybe the reason doesn’t really matter. The fact that the situation exists at all should be enough to spur us into action. And the action needed is to document, explain, and then reinforce exactly what is expected from each person in his or her job.
Document. What is the job? What are the outcomes that should be produced? How often should they be produced and to what standard? What tools, information, and relationships should be used to produce those outcomes?
Explain. Clarify, not just by handing someone a vague job description but by sitting down and discussing each outcome in sufficient detail that each performer understands it and is able to start working toward success.
Reinforce. Conduct frequent, regular coaching sessions designed to help each person produce each outcome to standard. Or course, this means each outcome should contain objective and measurable standards that both the performer and his or her manager can use to gauge success.
Document, explain, reinforce. Three simple steps you can take immediately to improve your teams’ results.
Questions to ponder:
- Do your people really know their jobs? How can you be certain?
In the automotive industry, painting cars is a critical and exacting process. So much so that the technicians don’t actually paint the cars, they coat them, a subtle but important difference. Of course there’s paint involved, and that paint is sprayed onto the cars—and that is the source of a key lesson about knowledge versus performance.
Within the training required of the paint-booth operator was a somewhat lengthy course on paint viscosity. It turns out that different colored paints have different viscosities leading to different spray characteristics—different enough that imperfections in the finished paint job could result if the operator wasn’t careful. Hence the course in viscosity. It was naturally thought that an operator who understood viscosity thoroughly would be better equipped to anticipate and eliminate any possible issues. In other words: superior knowledge would bring superior results.
To confirm this hypothesis, interviews were conducted with the operators who consistently produced the best results in the paint booth, such as fewer imperfections and higher quality finishes. If the hypothesis about superior knowledge was correct, those top operators would also be the most knowledgeable about paint viscosity and the potential implications in the paint booth. Imagine the surprise when just the opposite was discovered. Those top operators not only didn’t have superior knowledge about viscosity, they claimed knowing more would not help them in any way. But how could that be?
Instead one of the top operators pulled a simple cotton swab out of his pocket and said, “What I know a lot about is when and how to clean the nozzles to get the best possible results.” In other words: superior performance trumped superior knowledge!
Which would you prefer among your top performers: superior knowledge or superior performance?
Question to ponder:
- Are you training your people to have superior knowledge or superior performance?