Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation


Mental Models: Searching for Allies

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Contract employees have an unusual work life. They travel from job to job and place to place. Each new assignment offers new challenges ranging from major ones, like understanding the work itself, to the trivial, like finding the way through a new building. But no challenge is more difficult than identifying and developing relationships with allies who can help ensure success in the assignment.

A colleague who thrives as a contractor once offered a bit of advice that seemed strange: as soon as he starts a new assignment, he seeks out the “hardware guy or gal” within the information technology (IT) group and treats that person to lunch. In his experience, no one pays much attention to the IT hardware team, and certainly very few people appreciate just how valuable a relationship with the hardware team can be. With one simple and easy gesture, our colleague secures access to the best equipment, key insider knowledge about who else in the IT department is skilled and able to help in other areas, and a host of other advantages.

The real lesson? You never know where allies will be found. Seeking out potential allies requires a focused effort to identify them and cultivate relationships with them. Of course, developing new acquaintances under the thinly veiled guise of a mutually beneficial relationship while focusing exclusively on what someone can do for you is a poor approach that’s likely to fail. Truly exploring how you can help someone and what you have in common and treating him or her with respect is the more rewarding and sound approach.

Top performers like our colleague know this intuitively. In our interviews, we are always struck by how much credit top performers immediately give to others who help them along the path of success.


Questions to ponder:

  • What allies have you found in unlikely places? Are you being intentional about cultivating sincere and mutually beneficial relationships?

Mental Models: Keeping the End in Mind

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In mountain biking, every rider quickly learns an important lesson: the bike will go where the eyes are looking. If you look at a rock, you will likely hit the rock—even if you are trying to avoid it. If you look at the smooth space next to the rock, your wheels will usually roll safely through that space.

The same is true of performance: where you focus is where you will usually go. Top performers innately understand and practice this concept. They know where they want to end up, and they keep their focus on that end goal.

In practice that means top performers start with the strategic and then deal with the tactical. The strategic is the end goal: where they want to end up, what they want to achieve, what good looks like. Then, as they navigate their way through the various twists and turns of daily work, they have a sound basis for making tactical decisions.

This principle is manifested in the difference between the way top and average performers in business treat the everyday meetings and phone calls required to execute their business strategy. Average performers often view each contact as an end in itself; they try to “win” each of those encounters. In contrast, top performers focus on the longer-term intent expressed in their business strategy, their mental model of success, and they execute each encounter in a way that serves to move them closer to that strategic goal. If the specific objective of the call is not met, top performers seek to learn from the interaction and adjust their plan. If that requires taking a step backward or sideways rather than forward, so be it. They never lose focus.


Questions to ponder:

  • Where is your focus? Are you looking at the rock or the path?

Mental Models: Barriers

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You’ve probably heard the old saying that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude. While that may be true when it comes to travels, it’s especially true when it comes to the mental model of top performers.

Too often people focus on barriers and decide that fighting through the barrier to get things done is just too hard. Barriers make performance an ordeal. They make everything more difficult and, in many cases, people are stopped altogether.

Top performers, however, view barriers as mere speed bumps to be overcome—sometimes quickly—sometimes over time. Once over the speed bump, top performers are free to continue their relentless pursuit of excellence. Barriers are just part of the adventure. Or, in the words of another pithy saying “the best views come after the steepest climbs.” Top performers know that and keep their focus on the view at the end of the climb.

What kind of barriers fit this description? In a recent project involving senior executives, average performers often talked about the complex matrix organization as a significant barrier to their being able to accomplish their goals. The matrix was too complicated, required too much time to understand and navigate, and left communications channels too confused.

Meanwhile, the top performing executives talked about the same matrix in very different terms. To them, the matrix was a key to how they got things done. They welcomed the matrix because it offered so many avenues to build relationships, enlist help, and accomplish their goals.

To one group, a barrier is an ordeal; to the top performers, it’s simply part of the path on their adventure.


Question to ponder:

  • How do you and your team see obstacles, as barriers or as speed bumps that are part of the adventure?


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