Finding our way in the valley: when performance matters most

By Philippe Asselin

Finding our way in the valley: when performance matters most

No matter how good you get, you can always get better. That’s the exciting part. — Tiger Woods

How does your team define greatness? Who gets to set the bar, and what determines how high? The purpose of this commentary is to share thoughts on some of the similarities between sports and business as they relate to performance management. 

Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another. — John C. Maxwell

As business leaders, we are responsible and held accountable for developing high-performing teams to ensure long-term success. Similarly, in sports, coaching legends not only amass championships — they also develop the people around them. Top business leaders and coaches find ways to win with the talent they have, but they also continue to identify and develop top talent to keep the organization moving forward. These successful habits disseminate throughout an organization. They rewire decision-making frameworks and develop a new and more effective infrastructure that allows the team or company to hold the high ground.

How do leaders and coaches develop those habits and consistently find ways to win? The answers may vary, but the habits are few. The concept is easily illustrated in coaching. Many people love to race in ideal conditions. It can be a great opportunity to beat their own record for a certain distance or location. The improvement demonstrates a return on investment in training time, equipment and research into best practices. Others see ideal conditions as a chance to win, as they believe the right temperature, wind, tide, or other variable will guarantee their victory. Some may say this is a flawed approach, as ideal conditions give everyone else the same advantage, much the same way a solid economy can make most any company look good. 

Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing. — Chuck Noll

“Leisure” athletes or employees usually save work for ideal conditions. In doing so, they avoid the risk of injury, equipment damage, embarrassment or failure. They may be the most risk averse, and we can affectionately refer to them as the dividers. They are often in the way, sometimes slow the team down, and may even cause accidents as they are lapped by top performers on a mission to meet goals. Dividers may be fun to have around and they may provide some value, but they do so at a cost to the organization.

The intrinsic rewards of winning are not worth it for the dividers. They would like to scratch out a win if possible, but mostly it is just a dream. Some may not commit to competing until the last minute, or they’ll sign up and then not make it if conditions are less than ideal. From their perspective, not everyone has the time and resources to compete in all scenarios. They do what they can, when they can. They understand their lack of commitment will limit their ability to compete and may prevent them from joining the most competitive ranks of their sport. They typically race against themselves and are pleased with modest improvements. They don’t usually race to win. 

Dividers may have good reasons to train and race this way, such as past injuries. They still love the camaraderie and opportunity to support their passion by participating. They may question why others race to win, considering the costs. They are often followed in the draft train, which can be an effective strategy as long as you are in the lead pack. Dividers may have been in the lead pack for a season, but have since found their comfort zone in a more relaxed approach. No one seems to mind, especially not them. They understand goals and priorities, but remain unbothered by them. 

Sometimes they gossip about people with whom they cannot complete, hoping to beat them with words. 

Dividers can be the toughest to coach, as time invested may not provide immediate or desirable returns. They can also drain more resources than any other team member. But if coached properly, dividers can become rising stars in any organization. And as dividers gather momentum in their journey to success, they can provide encouragement to other middle and top performers. 

Mediocre people don’t like high achievers. High achievers don’t like mediocre people. — Nick Saban

Perhaps the most populous of all is the middle group: the commoners. They desire improvement, but may lack the knowledge or skill to achieve the next level. Commoners like to train and compete, but not always with the best. They may study the competition and choose to race where they believe they have a better chance to win due to the competition, conditions or course. This group is more easily discouraged than any other, which may be why they are selective about where they compete. They often ask for advice, but may not take suggestions that require heavy lifting. They are somewhat risk averse, mainly because risks they observed or took themselves had catastrophic outcomes. Commoners are not typically driven by fear, but they have a lower threshold for adversity and often let go of the wheel when the going gets tough. 

Commoners may have been top competitors in a season of their life, but they have lost their footing along the way. Perhaps it was due to burnout, bad leadership or poor decision-making. Maybe their inability to find the right work/life balance led to other issues. The reasons why commoners find themselves in the middle are too many to list. Many consider themselves top performers, and they will argue with anyone who suggests otherwise. They take constructive criticism well at times, but at other times take it personally. They may surround themselves with people who offer affirmation over sound advice or a kind rebuke.

Commoners may defend their belief that they are on top by picking and choosing the peers they are equal to or slightly better than. Somehow, top performers never wind up in that peer group. Reasons for not being competitive may be legitimate for a period of time, but most will choose to go elsewhere if the mountain cannot be moved in their minds. 

One common way top performers drift into this group is by valuing the wrong things or by working in a toxic culture. Some organizations value tenure over performance, which sends the message that survival is everything. Tenure is certainly valuable, as it confers intellectual capital gained from weathering many seasons in an organization. Still, measurable outputs need to go along with institutional knowledge.

Others may privilege hours worked over results. More hours can translate to better results, but perhaps only for a time. Work will take all you can give without ever complaining, and it can destroy everything good in its wake. Many organizations lose sight of the work/life balance. Individuals who keep work as a top priority for too long lose things they love in the process. Eventually, they wander into the divider group. 

As leaders work to improve culture and invest in leadership development, these common pitfalls to maintaining a good work/life balance can be avoided. Coaching commoners requires discipline and tenacity, as old habits take time to identify and correct. Coaching commoners is often the low hanging fruit for the highly evolved leader, as they often see the signs before they manifest and influence others.

If you want to win, do the ordinary things better than anyone else does them day in and day out. — Chuck Noll

Another group of competitors trains regardless of conditions. They understand the investment of time and resources to make this approach a reality. These are the multipliers. They work diligently to make their training plan happen. Their priorities are firm; they will stay on target and meet their objectives. They maintain a quiver of colleagues who function as a high-performing team, able to be open and honest with each other about their performance. Multipliers avoid those who tell them how great they are when they aren’t. They prefer sage advice from trusted resources over generic plaudits. 

Multipliers seek out the “iron” to compete with, which sharpens their edge. You might hear them mutter phrases such as “pain is weakness leaving the body” or — my favorite phrase from a Navy SEAL friend — “the only easy day was yesterday.” Multipliers often prefer adverse conditions, as they further separate them from those who did not prepare for the worst. Excuses are not welcome, as they can undermine any plan. Multipliers take their craft seriously and maintain a constant focus on performance improvement. They are passionate about being their best and create positive energy with those they encounter. 

Most importantly, multipliers understand the consequences of their choices, and strive to maintain a work/life balance that enables them and their organization to win. They have developed success habits and understand what it takes to stay out front. They pride themselves on the distance between themselves and the commoners. Their conversations are focused on ways to improve rather than how others performed. The multipliers love to compete with the best, and they give their best. They view not winning as an opportunity to train harder, not as a personal flaw. When they do not win, they often acknowledge that the more prepared team or individual rightfully won. The desire to compete and improve their own performance is woven into the fabric of who multipliers are. Many ask them for advice or join their group in order to follow their habits.

Coaching multipliers requires wisdom, as they are often the best at what they do. Some leaders prefer to manage them down, as their own pride gets in the way. These leaders seek control and power, and as a result, may inhibit long-term growth. Better leaders remove barriers that impede performance in order to enable multipliers to do their best. This approach allows multipliers to go farther than they had envisioned, raising the bar to heights never before achieved. As top talent creates successful habits and best practices, the team responds, multiplying growth opportunities for the organization. 

A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. — Nelson Mandela

The good news is we may all find ourselves in any one of these groups at some point in our lives. That is okay as long as we know where we are, how we got there, and how we can improve. The dangers are not knowing where you and your team are, which can lead to developing subjective norms. All groups are coachable, though some more than others. Each individual presents a unique challenge to a leader along the way to improvement. Leaders can shape their culture by investing in teams and successfully coaching individuals. They will attract and retain the best talent when they do.

At BalancedComp, we are fortunate to meet with all kinds of leaders. We know racers, too, as we have organized a charity race for 10 years. Interestingly, ideal conditions have not been the norm on race days. We have had major storms, extreme hot and cold temperatures, red tide, high winds and rough seas for at least eight of the 10 races. Moreover, given the nervous energy on race day, most competitors experience a rise in heart rate. Add in the extra competitors, safety teams and spectators, and suddenly even the best conditions seem challenging. Why do many of us prefer to train in ideal conditions if reality is often much different? How does this approach to training compare to how we coach and develop our teams for success in our organizations? 

I practice to the point where it’s almost uncomfortable how fast I’m going. Then in the game, things slow down. — Steph Curry

You may wonder why these comparisons matter and how they relate to measuring performance in the workplace. There are many similarities, as some compete to participate, and others compete to win. Would any leaders admit they aren’t in it to win it? Most would say they are, while others may admit they just want to do better than last year. Some say they are the best they can be, assuming they have reached the pinnacle of existence as an organizational leader. 

An observer can tell by looking at organizational and individual goals alongside the results. The actual results are the ultimate measure, but it takes a village to get there. When we dig deeper and take a look at the goals and engagement levels of the organization as a whole, we find the truth. Organizational and individual results often have a limited shelf life, so employee engagement can be critical to the long-term success of any organization. 

To uncover your true potential, first find your own limits, then have the courage to blow past them. — Picabo Street

As leaders review goals, they must ask themselves the following: Are the goals set for ideal conditions or any conditions? Are the goals objective and quantifiable, and if attained, where does that put us in the pack? More specifically, how does organizational performance compare to top performers in their asset class? In their region? In their industry as a whole, and by what metrics? Are the goals updated regularly and tied to compensation? Is the process of corporate, team and individual goal development a collaborative process? Are there consistent accountabilities throughout the organization? The list could continue on as we dig deeper into organizational performance.

Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan. — Tom Landry

One of the keys to organizational success is an integrated performance management system. Much like the tools we use to measure our performance when training to race, an integrated performance management system provides all parties with a way to provide ongoing feedback. The system should operate in a collaborative coaching dynamic instead of a “one and done,” top-down, control-based management process that happens once a year. This formal, annual feedback is riddled with conflict and mostly ineffective at improving performance. No winning coach would wait a whole year to give feedback to team members, and yet somehow we have allowed it to happen in the workplace. 

The performance system should enable feedback that is open, honest and timely. It should include critical control points of accountability as a reference. The plans should be constructed collaboratively to improve buy-in and employee engagement. It should be simple to administer and complete reviews, not a jet with unnecessary bells and whistles that no one can or wants to fly. It should be a system that enables all parties to self-reflect and substantiate performance regularly, instead of at the 11th hour when it is too late to coach deficient behavior or give praise for exceeding expectations. The performance management system should be integrated and paperless, enabling leaders to move quickly and transparently in order to build trust and morale. This type of system enables the racer/employee to “own” their performance with such high levels of engagement that they have a clear understanding of what it takes to win in any conditions. 

As a country, we are experiencing adverse conditions unlike any we have seen before. Many leaders have only trained or established goals for ideal conditions. As a result, they may not be able to compete. If they do, they may deplete limited resources they could use better elsewhere. Perhaps fear of the unknown controls their decision-making processes, and they are in full retreat. Of course, they cannot win if they choose not to compete. 

Is your team running to win? 

If you don’t have the tools to enable your team to compete now, it may be time to consider BalancedComp’s integrated performance management system, BalancedResults. Contact us to find out if what we offer would be a good fit for your organization. 

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