Mental Model: The Expectation of Excellence
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?
Mental Models: Life Is a Network
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?
Top Performer Perspective: Being Resolute
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?
Top Performer Perspective: Ask Why Not?
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?
Top Performer Perspective: Purposeful Patience
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?
Top Performer Perspective: Dealing with Bureaucracy
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?
Common Traits of Top Performers
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?
A New View of Coaching
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?
No Time to Coach
“Our first-line leaders have way too much on their plates to spend time coaching.” This complaint comes from practically every company we work with.
We get this response when we suggest that a critical element in improving team performance is the first-line leader’s ability to provide meaningful direction and feedback to each team member. Success, however, in this endeavor is complicated by three factors:
- Many first-line leaders are promoted to their positions because they demonstrated a high degree of competence in their primary role. In other words, they are promoted for being a top performer not because they are necessarily ready to lead other performers.
- Most top performers have become “unconsciously competent” at what they do. So though they are proven, consistent performers, they typically are not able to easily describe the essential elements of how they have been able to achieve success.
- When there is clear ability to perform and an equally clear challenge in explaining to others how to exceed, the result is the familiar first-line leader response of, “It’s just easier to do it myself.” Doing it yourself is, of course, a time-consuming approach.
These factors combine to create a dissonance that stands in the way of strong, meaningful coaching conversations between first-line leaders and their teams. This dissonance manifests itself through the fundamental problem statement that, “Our first-line leaders have way too much on their plates to spend time coaching.”
When this problem statement is juxtaposed against another common concern, we frequently hear, “Our teams are not performing the way we need them to, and we think we have a major gap in our first-line leader talent pipeline.” This mindset creates one of the most pressing conundrums in business today. Left unsolved, this issue undermines daily operational performance, execution of new or evolving strategies, and the fundamental talent pipeline critical to growth and expansion.
We will present viable options to this challenge in our outcomes-based coaching series.
Question to ponder:
- How are you or your company currently equipping your front-line leaders to successfully address their responsibility for the overall performance and growth of their teams?
Observing for Top Performer Outcomes
Surely the best method for identifying top performer outcomes is to watch top performers. It sounds simple, but it works. By watch them, we mean to observe them as they do their work in their normal work environment.
If the normal work environment is a call center, then sit next to them, listen to calls, and watch how they use their IT systems and any documentation around them. Pay particular attention to any handwritten job aids. If a top performer thinks something is important enough to write down, then it usually is a critical item that would benefit other performers.
If the normal work environment requires interfacing with customers (e.g., an outside sales rep) then the ideal method is to accompany the reps on customer calls. See what they do before, during, and after each customer interaction. For instance, what notes do they take and how do they document any follow-actions?
Sometimes the normal work environment is challenging for observations. We’ve worked with top performers everywhere from refineries where we had to take special training and don lots of protective gear to tugboats escorting loaded tankers through Alaskan waters in winter temperatures and very uncomfortable sea conditions. But in every case, we’ve learned a tremendous amount from being present with the top performer and seeing firsthand all of the hints and tricks they leverage.
Questions to ponder:
– Where do your top performers work their magic? Have you observed them as they do their work? What have you learned from your observations?