Understanding and Replicating Exemplary Performers (Part 1)

An Interview with Paul Elliot, co-author: Exemplary Performance

What can we learn from high performers that can be replicable to others? How can we help sustain peak performance? In this conversation with author Paul Elliot we discuss how to identify and then replicate exemplary performers within the organization.

(This is a two-part interview the second part can be found here)

Q: The subject of your work is fascinating, tell us about your background and what got you into it

As an undergraduate in psychology I was fascinated with human learning, I was just interested in how people learn and that’s what I pursued in my advanced degrees. I had this underlying assumption, that if we could find more effective ways to train people inside of an organizational setting, get information to them more efficiently, help them retain it more effectively that it would have a direct measurable impact on the performance regardless of the kind of role that they were in.

Once out in the world of work I very rapidly realized that people knowing things or people having the right skills did not correspond directly with high performance. Now they’re right in that knowledge in the right skills is essential for high performance but not everybody who had the right knowledge and skills were high performers.

I got confronted with the fact that what I brought to the table in terms of human learning was necessary but it just wasn’t sufficient for what I encountered. It was in that context that I started to look at other models. The other shift that occurred was that my focus had been on what people know and what they do and not necessarily what they produce or their accomplishments, I started to see people who were very busy, doing a lot but who didn’t produce much. I shifted my focus from skills and knowledge to outcomes or accomplishments and from simply looking at what learning was required to looking at what the system was that would enable high performance. I’ve been doing that kind of results focused systemic approach to improving performance now for almost thirty years so I made the shift early on in my career and I have enjoyed the work ever since.

Q: You’ve taken broad view, across industry and across functions of what makes a high-performance team (you have a great book on the topic as well). What are some of the commonalities you’ve seen?

Well a couple things that we often assume make high performers and, in fact, don’t. One of them is the sense that high performing teams are based on raw talent. You must have the requisite talent but very few high performers start to show exceptional talent in the early age. It turns out that most high performers grow into that role. It certainly isn’t tied to educational background, although educational institutions tend to filter people. But when you’re looking at what makes a high performer, I think of a couple of key characteristics probably top my list, having dealt with hundreds probably a thousand exceptionally high performers over my career. First: intentionality. They are very clear about what they are about and they’re very clear about how to measure their own success. Second, a constant focus: it’s not like on Thursdays I’ll work hard and I’ll coast the rest of the week. They pour themselves into what they’re doing but it’s not necessarily the amount of work they do it’s the clarity of the focus and clarity of purpose when they are working. They also, and this is the other side of that coin, establish real the clear expectations and find sources of feedback that are more predictive.

Take high performing sales people as an example. They typically pay less attention to quota attainment and more attention to indicators they have identified that predict the next quarter. They will have rich mental models of what success looks like in advance of the close of the deal. They establish their expectations; they measure their own performance. They may rely on the sales manager for feedback against the expectations they establish. They’re very intentional, they’re very clear about what their own goals are and again they tend to be more predictive than reactive. They master and maintain often the fundamentals, they don’t skip over the foundational stuff. They can scale and replicate their own performance.

One of the ways I define high performers, is consistent results. I mean everybody has seen the performer, be it a sales person or an athlete, who has a great game and then you know is mediocre for the next four and then has another great game. I don’t consider them exceptionally high performers. It’s that consistent, replicable, scalable activity leading into those results that I see is essential to high performance and that requires consistent execution of the fundamentals.

A quick story – I live in Annapolis Maryland a few miles from me is Johns Hopkins Hospital which is considered one of the best hospitals in the world on a recurring basis for years and years. It turns out in the ICU when they would insert central lines and I’m not going to remember the figures exactly but I think around twenty percent of the time there’d be an infection. One of the physicians on the staff there did research around that and came up with a checklist and the infections literally went to zero. It was wash your hands, drape the patient, apply an antiseptic before you insert the line, etc. I mean the most fundamental things, but in the rush of the ICU people would skip over some of those fundamental things and got infections and that’s obviously not a good thing. It’s not always the obscure or unique characteristic of performance that leads to the best results. Sometimes it is the sticking with those foundational items, doing them well and doing them consistently.

Q: Let’s talk about the Frontline Sales Manager function, arguably the biggest enabler in replicating individual success within a sales org. You mention that replicating top performance start with understanding their approach in a way that it’s transferable, what you refer to as the Profile of Exemplary Performance (PEP). Can you elaborate on what that looks like?

I’ll jump first to how we build a profile – we always do case-based analysis. You can’t ask an exceptionally high performer why she or he is good, because you won’t get the right answer. They will say I did my MBA at Stanford or I’ve been doing the work for twenty years or it comes naturally or they’ll give you all these reasons some of which may contribute to high performance but it’s not actually what happens. You must get in through interview and, ideally, observation.

Let’s say we’re talking about pipeline management – we would want  to take a look at someone’s pipeline and determine how they got to this point. Let’s look at all the data in and reverse engineer how they produce the actual high performance. That result is radically different than if you simply asked them why they’re good. Exceptional performers are unconsciously competent, they’re in the flow and not necessarily thinking step by step exactly what they’re going to do next, so by doing case based analysis you can observe and capture subtle things that the they would never identify on their own. For us we start by clarifying what the accomplishments or the results are that matter and that’s the way we want to select high performers. We don’t ask the sales leader who are their best managers, they may play golf with somebody or had gone to school together or whatever. You want to say which of your managers consistently produces the highest results and which results matter most to the success of the enterprise and then sit down with those people. Let’s say there are five or six major accomplishments that the sales manager should produce. No one person is the best necessarily at each of those so you go look at multiple people and compile a picture of what best looks like.

When we’re looking at stars or exemplary performers they tend to be randomly scattered across an organization. If you’re looking at sales and you have 2 or 3 exceptionally high performing sales people under a single sales manager. The sales manager is the star, that doesn’t happen naturally.

Let’s say one of the major accomplishments for the sales manager is a territory strategy. You’d say: let’s pull out your territory strategy for 2017. How did you start the process of building this?  Perhaps they are new to role and it’s the first time they’ve done it, maybe they have been in the role several years and they always start by analyzing how they did last year against their plan. You ask them to step through how they built that. Another major accomplishment could be effective business and operations management, always on top of their calls, etc. You’d say: You seem to be particularly good at Operating the business. How do you do that? It could be they have a well-established rhythm of doing things, who knows but the point is you sit with them you pull out an example of the accomplishment that you want the understand and then ask them to step you through the process on how that was produced.

(Second part of the interview can be read here)

About the Author

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Rene Garcia is CoFounder at Convercio Inc