I don’t mean to shoot myself in the foot here, but I’m a big fan of asking the hard questions — even if it means directing those questions at myself.
So here goes.
Organisations hire me to run High Performance workshops for their leaders and teams.
And inevitably, people ask me- How did you get into High Performance?
Usually I say something like- Because I’ve won a bunch of karate titles.
And that’s that. They tend to just accept it, like- Fair enough, she’s won some stuff. She’s qualified.
Now, this might sound crazy– but I want to respectfully challenge this.
Because why would “winning” even matter at work?
And does being a “winner” constitute being a High Performer?
What even is a High Performer in the workplace anyway?
WINNING IN SPORT vs RESULTS AT WORK
In sport, there’s typically just one thing you’re chasing. VICTORY.
Sure, there are stepping stones along the way, and some athletes will claim that they just want to get on the podium, or that they’re just there for the experience– but those athletes aren’t usually the folks who end up giving keynote speeches at big industry events on “how to be successful”.
Muhammad Ali didn’t just leave us feeling mildly inspired because he wanted to be a contender.
No. Muhammad Ali totally turned our world upside down and inspired us to the core because of his unyielding commitment to being THE GREATEST.
Not the hardest working. Not the most improved. THE GREATEST.
In sport, we almost universally accept the belief that we should “win at all costs”, and therefore beating everyone else along the way is just what you need to do.
But in business- or anywhere outside of sports- how effective is this principle?
(Even if we look at Ali, did his worldwide legacy arise from the victories he achieved in the ring? Or was it for what he represented and stood for, to humanity as a whole?)
At work, should our single-minded focus be purely on maximising our results?
And is that what makes a high performer- the ability to get exceptional results, no matter what?
A QUICK TEST
Let’s say “Barry” is amazing at getting results, but he’s also a total jerkface to his colleagues and direct reports. Barry’s got no issue with highlighting others’ inadequacies, dismissing ideas, or talking over the top of everyone at meetings.
So is Barry a High Performer because he can achieve exceptional KPI’s?
Sure he is! Outcomes MATTER.
But if you act like a total jerk to everyone along the way– are you really a High Performer?
Still undecided? Let’s consider hypothetical “Rhonda”.
Rhonda drives incredible outcomes and never misses a deadline. But Rhonda is a dominating micro-manager who dismisses everyone’s needs in a heartbeat. She constantly makes others feel like they’re about to royally stuff up, any second now.
If you get amazing results like Rhonda, but if you dominate and control your colleagues and team in the process– does that really qualify you as a High Performer?
What if you’re a leader who gets amazing results, but you breed a team culture of fear instead of trust? Are you still a High Performing leader?
– If you drive others down, rather than helping bring out the best in them?
– If you spend all the time ordering and instructing, and no time actually listening?
– If your colleagues and team dread coming to work every day. If absenteeism is rife in your team or branch?
Yes, you get exceptional results, but is THAT a high performer?
Here’s what I think…
BARRY, YOU’RE NOT A HIGH PERFORMER. You’re a freaking jerk.
RHONDA, YOU’RE NOT A HIGH PERFORMER. Your team are scared of you- and they’re planning their exit strategy as we speak. And amen to that!
There’s no doubt about it. Results and outcomes are a critically important part of our work and what we do. But driving exceptional results isn’t the be all and end all.
Maybe in the 80’s, greed, ambition, and stepping over anyone and everyone to get what you want was OK in the workplace. But those 80’s are well and truly over.
Today we’re living in a much more enlightened workplace environment, where the pursuit of the individual isn’t celebrated like it once was.
If you think I’m being purely aspirational, or downright naive, then don’t take my word for it.
Let’s turn to some of the world’s biggest industry leaders and get their take instead.
CURRENT BUSINESS APPROACHES BY 3 MEGA INDUSTRY LEADERS
If you’re not already familiar with Reid Hoffman’s work— LinkedIn co-founder and partner at Greylock— then I strongly urge you to.
Reid’s ethical positioning in business (and life) is richly evident in his brilliant podcast, Masters of Scale.
Before co-founding the behemoth that is LinkedIn, Reid helped turn PayPal into a monster success with then-CEO Peter Theil, before selling it to eBay in 2002.
Widely admired and respected as “The Oracle of Silicon Valley,” Reid is a top performer of the highest level.
So what does Reid think about individual results in business?
“Life is a team sport, not an individual sport.
And once you start thinking that way, everything goes a lot better.”
Think Reid’s a one-off?
What about billionaire hedge-fund manager, Ray Dalio?
There is no question that Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates— one of the world’s largest hedge funds– is insanely outcome driven.
But the second you start looking into Ray’s leadership style and his business approach, you’ll discover that it’s as steeped in emotional intelligence and emotional reasoning, as it is logic and rationale.
The culture at Bridgewater is based upon meritocracy, radical transparency, and driven by “meaningful work and meaningful relationships”. If you have any doubt about Ray’s implementation of this, look no further than the tomb of content he provides in his deeply strategic bestseller, Principles.
But no one has said it as candidly as Thrive Global Founder and CEO, and Uber Board Director, Arianna Huffington.
When the Uber sexism controversy went down in 2017, Arianna emphatically declared– No More Brilliant Jerks.
In her statements to the Uber staff Arianna confirmed;
As I’ve said it again and again, no brilliant jerks will be allowed,
and no one will be protected because they are top performers.
So there you have it.
High performers in sport might still be able to get away with some unfavourable behaviour or emotional outbursts as they strive to maximise results (though even this is far less tolerated in today’s climate), but at work it is no longer acceptable.
As we climb ever-higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, more and more people are looking to their workplace for a greater sense of meaning, purpose and importance.
Being a top performer is no longer just about getting results at the expense of others. It’s about adding real value to colleagues, peers, clients, customers, and the wider community- all of which lead into driving outcomes and results.
The new business and high performance approach is a founded on a win-win- win model;
Employees win. Clients and customers win. And the business wins.
To reflect this, I believe we need a deeper, more accurate definition of what being a “High Performer” in the workplace really means today.
AFTER NOTE: If you’ve got great a definition of High Performance for the workplace today, please pop it in the comments for others to use as well.
Lastly, got a colleague or team member who lives and breathes this stuff?
Why not send them this post & let them know you’re grateful to be on the same team as them.