Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation


What If There Are No Top Performers?

No top preformersOne 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?


How Many Top Performers Should Be Interviewed to Develop a TOPS Profile?

TOPS profileThat’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?


Why Not Interview Average Performers?

average performers

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?


The Value of Observations

Image by stockimages at

Image by stockimages at

Watching over her shoulder as she handled each call, we saw a pattern emerging. As she recited her standard opening lines, “Thank you for calling XYZ corporate—my name is Jane (not her real name). Before we start, I need to ask you some verification questions,” Jane scanned the account overview screen, which showed the appropriate answers to the verification questions, some summary information about the account, and any recent account activity including other communications.

Once the caller gave the correct answers to the verification questions, Jane would then ask how she could help. But as soon as she asked that question, and before the caller could answer, Jane often navigated from the overview screen to some of the more detailed screens in her system. At first, it seemed as if she was randomly clicking around the screens while talking to the caller, but then the real pattern emerged. Jane wasn’t randomly clicking around at all. More often than not, she ended up on the screen that contained the specific information the caller wanted before the question had even been asked. But how?

Let’s pause here for a minute in the telling of this story to frame the question we are answering: is it really necessary to do observations when developing a TOPS profile? The answer is a resounding yes whenever possible. And the story of our call center representative is a perfect illustration of why.

As we watched, it seemed that Jane was clairvoyant—able to accurately predict what callers would ask, even sometimes when they didn’t fully understand their own questions. So we asked Jane to stop taking calls so we could better understand what was happening.

When asked how she was able to predict the questions, at first Jane said that she didn’t predict them, she was just using the active listening skills the company had taught her. But when we challenged her about the last call, Jane stopped and thought for a minute. Then she showed us some particular data on the overview screen. “See,” she said, “when an account has this bit of information here, it’s pretty common for people to call and ask what she asked.”

“Really? Are there other common questions you can figure out from the overview screen?” That question led to a lengthy conversation that led to the drafting of a simple set of heuristics. When tested and refined with other top performing call-center representatives, those simple heuristics helped them accurately predict over sixty percent of the questions received.

Being able to accurately predict the question enabled the representatives to focus more of their attention on the two other outcomes that set the top performers apart from the rest: (1) empathetic synching with the caller—striving for a real connection, and (2) helping a caller understand the complex answers to the question—translating from system-speak to human terms. By reducing the amount of time needed to find the answer, the top reps were able to spend more time on the things that really mattered.

Would we have learned that lesson in a conference room? Or over the phone? No chance. Only by sitting with the performer, experiencing the work as it presented itself, and being alert for patterns were we able to identify the secret sauce of the top performers.


Clear Secrets to Successful Teams

Image by ddpavumba at

Image by ddpavumba at

Butler recently had the great pleasure of going to an athletic reunion at the small high school he attended in Norlina, North Carolina. The invitation simply stated, “Open to all who participated in athletics from 1915 when the school opened through existing freshmen in 1981 when the school closed.” Over 300 people, showed up and many old relationships were rekindled. Top athletes from every decade reminisced about championship teams and standout coaches and players.

Though Butler had heard of the last speaker of the night and knew he was from his county, not until he was introduced did Butler realize that the speaker was a junior at Norlina High when it closed. David Henderson had been a basketball superstar at Norlina for three years and then at Warren County High School during his senior year. He went on to play for Duke University, serving as a cocaptain his senior year as the Blue Devils made it all the way to the final four.

David’s message was excellent. Let’s paraphrase the key points:

  • The best teams have clearly defined roles and match players to those roles
  • Some coaches only coach—the great ones also teach
  • He remembers where he’s from and takes his community with him as he travels the world
  • All of us should reach out and help raise up those in our community who may be disenfranchised

All four key points are powerful and relevant. Given our work with the TOPS model, the first two bullets were especially germane for us. As we have reflected on them, their applicability to the business world couldn’t be more pertinent.

The first point, the fact that best teams have clearly defined roles, speaks exactly to what Aimee discovers from her brother in our book. Role clarity provides great insight on every aspect of performance. It points to whom to recruit to fill the role and what skills to focus development efforts on, and, most importantly, it defines the specific outcomes the role must successfully produce for the team to win.

Defined roles lose much of their power, however, if they are not followed up with the subtle distinctions David points out about coaches and coaching. Some coaches focus solely on the game plan and the tactics required to carry it out. They are good tacticians. The best coaches also focus on teaching individuals how to be great in their specific roles. The teaching transforms a collection of individuals from a group of talented athletes into a high performing, winning team.

Butler is very proud to have grown up in the small rural town of Norlina, and, like David, he takes the community with him wherever he goes. Butler found it uplifting to hear David’s message and refreshing to witness the humility with which he delivered it.


Questions to ponder:

  • Are roles clear on your team?
  • Are coaches as teachers prevalent in your organization?


Barriers to Top Performance

Image by Ladyheart at

Image by Ladyheart at

Before we dig into the process of equipping people to produce top results, we thought it would be worthwhile to discuss one key bit of the process. Fortunately—or unfortunately—depending on your point of view, a TOPS analysis often uncovers barriers unintentionally erected by the organization that prevent people from excelling. Those barriers are frequently the unintended consequences of otherwise well-meaning decisions. Let’s use an example to explain.

We were asked to analyze the performance of TOP operators in an oil refinery with the goal of developing a training program to improve the performance of both the operators and the refinery. Oil refineries are inherently dangerous places that can be made safe by the dedicated hard work of management and operators working in cooperation. A key objective of the refinery was to find and eliminate gas leaks throughout the plant. Besides being dangerous, leaks are costly. Management requested the new training program include information to help operators identify and report leaks. This request was based on the fact that, while there were clearly leaks to be found, very few were routinely reported.

To meet the safety requirements of conducting observations in a refinery, we wore the usual protective equipment, including fire-retardant suits, safety shoes, hardhats, and detectors designed to reveal any exposure to potentially harmful gases. During the course of the TOPS analysis, we were following, helping, and observing one of the best performers. On our list of particular things to observe was what the operator did if he encountered a leak: specifically what steps he would take to identify and report it.

It didn’t take long to find out. We quickly developed a rapport with the operator as he walked us around while he conducted his daily inspection. As we approached one piece of equipment, he asked us to take off our gas detectors, place them in our pockets, and hold our breath for just a few seconds while he took a quick pressure reading. With some trepidation, we did. As soon as he recorded the reading from the gauge and walked quickly away from that spot, we asked about the strange request. He explained there was a minor leak in that piece of equipment but that it wasn’t bad enough to go through the hassle of reporting it. As we dug into the reporting process, we understood the issue.

Management took the leak reporting so seriously that they had instituted a very formal and rigorous tracking system. This system used a complex computer program that could only be accessed through a terminal in the main refinery operations building—about a half mile from the actual equipment. The combined effect of a long walk and having to use an unfamiliar and unfriendly computer program was so discouraging that operators simply ignored leaks until they reached a severity that demanded attention. There was no training issue, just an unintentional barrier that made it difficult and unappealing to do the right thing.

Once found, barriers of that sort are easy to eliminate.

We’ve found that almost all organizations have these types of hidden barriers working against excellence. Finding and eliminating them is a necessary step in driving excellence.


Question to ponder:

What barriers to top performance might be lurking in your organization?

What Do You Do with Outcomes?

Image by Stuart Miles at

Image by Stuart Miles at

You’ve followed the TOPS approach outlined in our book, The New Game Changers: Driving Performance by Focusing on What Matters. Now you have a list of four to seven critical outcomes top performers focus on to help them succeed. Now what? Do you simply publish the list and make it available to the entire population performing the role? Or can you take prescriptive steps to maximize the impact that outcomes thinking can bring?

In this blog post, we’ll discuss some initial ways outcomes can and should be leveraged.

When considering how to use the list of identified outcomes, it’s helpful to think of the workforce as three different groups:

  • Incumbent performers as a group
  • Each performer as an individual
  • New hires, whether new to the organization or just the role

Lets look at each of these distinct groups.

For the incumbent performers, the key is to communicate what excellence in the role looks like as modeled through the aggregate outcomes of top performers and what actions can be taken to begin to meet that standard. We’ve had excellent success driving immediate business impact by conducting an Excellence in Role workshop, which is one to three days of discussion-based learning. This war-story format draws the participants into highly relevant conversations based on context-rich examples. It’s interesting to watch. Some participants immediately adopt the mindset of top performers while others challenge what they are hearing and resist the idea of change. But through the challenge and the resulting discussions, the participants develop a new and deeper understanding of what is required to be successful in the role. The workshop wraps up by having each performer develop a personal action plan for improving his or her individual results.

Our experience has shown that once the basic framework is established of how to measure and produce each of the outcomes, a follow-up must be provided by a deliberate and focused coaching program to drive impact on an individual level. The coaching program that works combines the specificity and context of the outcomes documented through the TOPS analysis with proven methods for conducting meaningful conversations with both peers and subordinates. This program can be deployed immediately for incumbents and early in the work experience for new hires.

For new hires, a more intentional program to orient and equip them to produce the outcomes is typically warranted. That equipping program will usually include a series of learning events, job aids and structured on-the-job activities to guide the new employees and build the confidence necessary to successfully produce each of the identified outcomes.

In subsequent posts, we’ll look at each of these groups in more detail.


Question to ponder:

How do you think outcomes can be leveraged to drive performance?

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