In my 27 years of working with a wide range of companies and organizations, from Fortune 500 companies to HR associations to small businesses, it has become painfully obvious that, as the old saying goes, success “isn’t rocket science.” My job is to discover and report what high performance organizations and individuals have in common.
What do they do that others don’t? How do they think? What differentiates extraordinary performers from everyone else? It’s a shock to some people to learn that high performance factors seldom have to do with superior talents or skills, and have much more to do with the simple act of making choices.
I’ve come to think of high performance as showing off. Showing off, as I define it, isn’t about bragging or arrogance. Showing off simply means bringing your best to everything that you do. It’s about being focused and working with the intention of creating results that benefit the stakeholders in any given situation. Showing off means creating value through accomplishment.
Here are four keys to showing off high performance in the best sense of the term:
1. Grand Stupidity and Absurd Bravery in High PerformanceThis may seem incredibly counterintuitive, but top performers are the ones who seem to act with grand stupidity and absurd bravery. They make choices that others don’t make. They try things without knowing whether or not they’ll work. They often refuse to play it safe and they sometimes seem ridiculous and audacious.
What I’ve just described is the behavior of an innovator. Ask anyone whether or not they believe that their company must be innovative in order to be competitive, and you’ll always get a yes. But that’s where the commitment to innovation often ends, with lip service.
Innovation means you go first. Innovation means you have to try things without knowing whether you’ll succeed or not. Innovation takes courage, sometimes even absurd bravery. It also takes a willingness to let go of what used to work; what has always worked; and everything that made you successful up to this point. It means acting with an attitude of grand stupidity that says “I don’t know what works. So let's find out.”
Casey Stengel once said, “They say you can’t do it but that doesn’t always work.” He’s right. Here’s another blinding flash of the obvious: 100% of the things you don’t try won’t happen. The lesson is this: take a chance.
Mark Twain once said “I knew a man who picked a cat up by the tail. He learned 40% more about cats than the man who didn’t.” Sometimes we have to pick the cat up by the tail. You may get scratched up, but you’ll gain information that will set you on the right path to success.
2. What Have You Done for Me Next? Action Rules. Speed Wins in High Performance.The big question in business used to be, “What have you done for me lately?” Today we’re not so interested in what happened lately anymore. Today we’re interested in what happens next. We have truly become an I want it yesterday society and we have no patience for what we judge to be unnecessary waiting. If you make me wait, you lose.
If I could pass along one strategy that I’ve observed in top performers, it would be this: do it now. Those of us who live in the corporate world have become used to having meetings about new ideas, then studying the ideas, then having more meetings about the ideas. Then tabling those ideas in favor of even newer ideas. We talk them to pieces. We meeting them to death.
The most effective organizations I know have a tremendous propensity for action and speed. If it’s agreed that an idea is a good one, responsibility for the implementation is immediately assigned, guidelines for accountability are established, the check is written to pay for it, and they get on with it.
Top performers fear being stuck in indecision much more than they fear mistakes. They rightly believe that mistakes can be corrected, but standing still in a constantly moving marketplace can be fatal.
Along with a propensity for action is a need for speed. So you’ll get back with me tomorrow? Great. That gives me lots of time to find somebody else to do business with because you’re fired. Believe it or not, I still run into people who take great chest-swelling pride in their policy of returning calls within twenty-four hours.
Wake up and smell the millennium, folks. It’s the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth. While you’re looking at your calendar to find a time to get back to your customers, co-workers, or vendors, they’re looking at their watches.
3. Relentless Improvement – Outside and Inside the BoxWho’s the best professional golfer in the world over the past ten years? Everyone who just read that thought, “Tiger Woods.” Well, consider this: Tiger Woods has a coach. Tiger Woods is the best golfer in the world. Not one of the best. The best. And Tiger Woods has a coach. That fact alone should be enough to make the point that you should never, ever, ever be as good as you’re going to be. Inside every top performer is a better performer waiting to get out. Tiger Woods wants to be a better golfer. There’s a clue in that for all of us.
One of my favorite clients has a basic rule for all employees: If you’re as good as you’re going to be – you can’t work here. Every company gives lip service to the idea of constant improvement. Every company will agree that to stay competitive they must be better tomorrow than they are today. But what steps did you take today that will assure that you’ll be better tomorrow? Is it truly a policy? Or is being better tomorrow just a slogan? For top performing organizations and individuals, relentless improvement is part of what they do every day.
We all constantly talk about thinking outside the box. That’s fine, and you most certainly should think outside the box. But here’s another approach that you’d better not ignore – get back inside the box and get better at the basics of your business. Sometimes our greatest returns on improvement are realized when we invest in improving on our customers’ (be they internal or external) basic expectations.
If you own a hamburger stand, rather than pursue outside the box innovations like adding tanning beds to your business or inventing a chocolate flavored hamburger, you might do well to simply be better at serving the hamburgers while they’re still hot. Get back inside the box and get better at the basics.
4. Whatever Happens Is NormalShow offs thrive on the unexpected. It’s the essence of showing off to perform well when under pressure. Here’s a test: What’s going to happen next? As Mark Twain said, “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said I don’t know.” Top performers plan carefully. They research and forecast and consider every contingency. And, most important, they are completely at ease with the reality that something totally unexpected will happen. This is the key to moving forward versus being frozen with uncertainty. We have to be able to embrace the unknown.
It used to be that the way to succeed was to make the right choice. To succeed today means making the right choice, and then making the next right choice quickly enough. Regardless of what’s going on in your world right now, get ready to switch gears. You may think you understand the situation, but the situation just changed. If you can’t perform under those circumstances, then you’ve got no place to go. In today’s world, if you don’t like the unknown, you’re a fish that doesn’t like water.
What’s the difference between the person who easily and gracefully handles the unexpected and the person who goes ballistic over the unexpected? It’s The Normal Factor. The person who handles the unexpected has made it up that whatever happens is normal. Not acceptable, necessarily, but normal.
Top performers accept that stuff happens. You must always factor in that however carefully you plan your work and work your plan, the unexpected will inevitably rear its ugly head and throw a wrench into your carefully constructed scenario. The beginning step in creating opportunity from change is to always expect the change. Whatever happens may not be what you wanted, but it truly is normal. Respond accordingly.
Aspire to Showing OffShowing off is a good thing. Showing off is a mindset. The true show offs in any organization are often the quiet ones. They’re the ones that perform with consistency and even a certain sense of style. They’re like the old saying about the duck: Above the surface, be calm and elegant. Below the surface, paddle like hell.
When I ask executives and managers to rate desired attributes in employees, almost invariably consistency of performance, performing under pressure, and delivering results, are the top three. It’s truly not rocket science. It’s about choosing how we come to each and every situation, challenge, and opportunity in our work and in our lives.
Joe Calloway is an expert on high-performance organizations and individuals, a partner in Mirror, an award-winning restaurant in Nashville, TN, and a member of the International Speakers Hall of Fame. He advises clients from newspapers in Sweden, hotels in Great Britain, and computer companies in South Africa to world brands like BMW and American Express. He is also the author of Never by Chance: Aligning People and Strategy Through Intentional Leadership (compare prices), Becoming a Category of One: How Extraordinary Companies Transcend, (compare prices), Work Like You're Showing Off (compare prices), and Indispensable (compare prices), all from Wiley. Visit Joe's Web site.