Developing Great Performance

By Ian J. Cook, CHRP, MA, MBA

One of the central reasons to have an HR function within an organization is not only to find great people but to help those people give their best, and continue to grow their skills and abilities. When organizations are constantly looking to improve the level of productivity of their staff, secure the organizations’ future through succession programs, and deliver innovation through their staff, they really need to understand the mechanisms and practices which lead to great performance.

This is a topic that Geoff Colvin explores in depth in his recent book, Talent is Overrated. His summary and description of a range of academic studies is enlightening and in some ways surprising. His central tenet is that great performance is not innate. People are not born to be amazing musicians, golfers, business leaders. There are no studies, and there have been lots, that can distinguish those who get to the top of their chosen vocation more easily, quickly or simply than others through sheer raw talent. This is a myth that is commonly accepted by many and Colvin presents compelling proof that we should lay this myth aside, and consider what truly makes great performance.

One of the reasons that myths are often held and maintained, even when the evidence is against them is that they are a convenient excuse. When we consider one of the main elements that has been proven to be core to creating great performance, we can see that the myth of innate ability is attractive. World class performance requires what Colvin calls deliberate practice. World class performance requires more deliberate practice, to a more intense extent, for a sustained period of years than anything else. On rough estimates people achieve mastery after 15 to 20 years of deliberate practice.

To go deeper into what deliberate practice looks like, it is repeatedly doing the hardest, most complex activities and tasks again and again. These are the tasks that people might not like and might not initially perform at a high level. For example, it might involve a singer repeating a series of notes or a phrase that is complex and tricky, it might involve a cyclist riding a tough hill and then riding it again, or it might involve a business leader practicing tricky performance conversations. The word deliberate is important; it is not just a case of doing the activity. Deliberate practice requires that you slow down the process of doing the activity, analyze each section, and then repeatedly try to make your actions the best possible. With regard to the performance conversation, this could involve rehearsing and re-phrasing how to handle specific objections or challenges again and again. This would not just require mental rehearsal, but working through vocalizing your thoughts, and understanding how they are heard and interpreted.

Deliberate practice is not necessarily fun. It can hurt, be frustrating, be intensely mentally and physically draining and it does not happen by accident. One of the stark findings described in Colvin’s book is that people do not automatically get better at a job by being in it for longer. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite. Without a drive for constant improvement or a focus on developing, people become stale in their roles and performance drops.

Deliberate practice also includes the opportunity to fail, and necessarily involves investing more time in things that people do not do well and that are important for great performance. When an organization’s focus is on making sure that people get 10 out of 10 for everything they do, they are not allowing space for the crucial development of their people. The drive for 10 out of 10 tends to increase as you move up the leadership ladder and yet the need to deliberately practice complex information analysis, decision making and tough conversations also increases. The expectations of performance and the dynamics that lead to future world class performance are misaligned. This can lead to good performance but never great.

What this means for anyone looking to develop world class performance in their organization is that part of your strategy and approach must be to invest in supporting deliberate practice. Each staff member should have an area that they need to improve, that is linked to their role, and understand that they are required to invest time in developing this skill on a daily and weekly basis.

Organizationally, you also need the mechanisms and interpersonal skills for managers and supervisors to support and challenge people to maintain this deliberate practice. When time is short and pay is for outcomes, very few people will chose to put themselves through the hard work of deliberate practice. Identify those who will do this and you have identified your future winners. Build a system into your day-to-day operations to support more people to engage in deliberate practice and you are on your way to becoming a world class organization.

Ian J Cook, CHRP, is the director of HR knowledge and research at BC HRMA. Ian is using his global HR consulting experience and business knowledge to grow a function which delivers informative, relevant and timely comment.


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