How can you find out what outcomes your top performers focus on? The first, and perhaps most obvious, approach is to ask them. Interviewing is a key technique and is usually the starting point for our discovery process.
Top performer interviews differ from other common interviews we usually conduct. For most of us, our interviewing experience is mostly based on interviewing candidates for a position to select the best candidate. In that case, we are attempting to determine whether someone is qualified and, if so, which of the candidates is most qualified.
When interviewing top performers, we are trying to learn what they already know. That requires developing a great deal of rapport and trust during the interview so the performers will open up and frankly discuss how they think about their work.
The most common technique we use is called a framing session. We call it that because we are trying to frame up in our minds the broad outlines of the job through the eyes of the top performer. We commonly ask this person to walk us through a day (or shift or week or month or whatever other time frame makes sense) in his or her life.
As top performers discuss their perspectives on that day, we probe for answers to the following questions:
- What did they do (tasks)?
- What did they produce as a result of those tasks (outcomes)?
- Why did they do a particular task (stimulus)?
- How did they know when they were done with a thing (success criteria)?
- What either helps or hinders them (facilitators or barriers)?
- Who did they collaborate with (team)?
At this early stage, we aren’t focused on getting every detail of every outcome. We just want to get a rough outline of the work so we can identify places to drill into later.
Questions to ponder:
- How would you describe your job in terms of the bullet points above? Could you?
A theme running through our book, The New Game Changers, and all our blog posts and discussions is the idea of uncovering the outcomes focused on by top performers. But how is that accomplished; how are those critical outcomes uncovered?
As usual in questions dealing with people, the answer is both simple and complex. Simple because top performers are already focused on the critical outcomes. That means they have current practices that can be observed, discussed, and documented. Complex because top performers rarely think about what they do—they simply do what they do. Top performers usually are what we call unconsciously competent. They do the right things but aren’t really aware of how what they do differs from what others do. The most common answer we get from top performers when asked what makes them stand out among their peers is “Hmm, I’m not really sure. I’ve never really thought about it before.”
But clearly they are top performers for a reason, actually several reasons. First, they focus on different things. Second, and perhaps not as obvious, they don’t waste valuable time on anything that doesn’t matter. And third, they have discovered particular ways of accomplishing those critical outcomes, ways that get around or through the artificial barriers that so often seem to stop other performers.
In the next series of blog posts, we’ll discuss ways that have proven successful at uncovering the critical outcomes of your top performers.
Question to ponder:
- How you would uncover and document top performer outcomes for a critical role in your organization?
When we work with organizations to help improve performance, one question we ask is, “Who are your top performers?” What we are seeking are examples of people who are currently doing excellent work and consistently delivering the results the organization desires.
Our question turns out to be much harder than it might seem.
Too often, we have to challenge leaders’ preconceptions to find the real top performers. To explain, let’s look at some of the usual answers we receive and examine the preconceptions behind them—and why they fall short.
Option A: Managers Who Used to Be Performers
Since managers who used to be performers were selected for advancement, they surely were the best, right? Perhaps. But the key word in that sentence is were. They were the best (perhaps).
But since these performers were promoted, two factors have changed. First, the job changed. To stay competitive, organizations have to evolve rapidly and continually. Roles must change to stay abreast of that evolution. So the role the manager filled as a past performer may not be the same role filled by current performers, making comparison problematic.
Second, the new managers have changed. They are now in a new role. Hopefully, they were selected for that role because of their potential for excellence in the new role, not just because of their performance in the old one. (That’s a subject for another day.) Since they’ve been in their new role, they’ve been acquiring new skills and mental models to replace the old ones they used as performers, which means they can no longer accurately represent the particulars of current top performers.
Option B: Those with the Longest Tenure
Those who have been there the longest must be the best, right? Not very often. Staying in a company a long time does not make an employee a top performer. Length of employment alone is not an accurate indicator of performance. Too often, people stay in jobs because they are comfortable, not because they are excelling.
Option C: Related Role
Quite often, organizations will identify a great performer, but the individual isn’t really in the role we are asking about. For example, if the role in question is that of financial advisor, then a credit counselor—who works with financial advisors and may be able to talk intelligently about that role—may be mentioned as a top performer. But it is not the same role, and all the hidden tricks, unconscious expertise, and mental models required are not the same either.
Option D: Top Performers Currently Excelling in the Role Being Studied
This is the right choice!
When we ask for top performers, what we really want are people who
- Are currently in the role being studied
- Are consistently excelling in that role
- Represent the range of geographic and organizational groups that exist in the organization
A good trick to identify the top performers is to think of the performers you would call on when the job gets really difficult. Here are some examples from different industries:
- Which operator would you prefer to be “running the board” in the event of a process flow problem?
- Which operator would call in to work when a problem occurs?
Customer Service Call Center
- Which person would you prefer to take calls from your highest value prospects?
- Which person would you want handling irate callers?
- Who is the best at converting inquiries to sales or upselling?
- Which sales executive would you prefer to handle the client with the most potential to grow?
- Who would you choose to solve a difficult client retention issue?
The bottom line is that when trying to understand what differentiates top performers from average performers, identifying and studying the top performers is essential. Only then can you accurately map how they do what they do and then build programs to help others excel in the same way.
By the way, yes—the top performers are often the busiest because you call on them all the time. But they are often the most willing to help. They want to succeed and they usually want others to succeed as well.
Who would you identify as your top performers?