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The Intangibles of Performance Excellence

In the last 5 years or so, I have had the pleasure of working with a number of different companies in quite varied industries to understand performance excellence—to understand what behaviors are unique to those individuals who consistently achieve exceptional results in their field. As you might expect, the behaviors vary widely and are typically specific to the role in question, from developing their own tools to solve a particular problem to conducting research that their peers never considered. Through their unconscious competence, top performers take steps above and beyond the normal routine, often not even for their own benefit but to improve processes for their customers or colleagues. These behaviors become the framework for new training and performance support solutions, introduced in an effort to elevate the performance of the masses, that is, for other performers in the same or similar roles.

This approach can have a powerful impact on organizational effectiveness and on improving bottom-line results. However, individual performance excellence must be closely tied to organizational business objectives from the very beginning, and performance improvement measures must be comprehensive, rather than treated as a single training event. (Think Gilbert’s model of behavioral engineering: information, tools, motivation, knowledge, skills, and incentives all working together toward success.)

In my experience over the years with multiple roles across many different industries, I have noticed a few common themes emerging that may not translate quite so directly into new performance interventions but that are worth noting as intangibles of performance excellence.

The first of these is mindset. Top performers in many roles have a certain level of curiosity, a willingness and a desire to continuously learn new things, and a focus on improving and growing themselves and their organization. They are the individuals who keep abreast of trends in their industry, who are most likely to volunteer to work on a taskforce, to be creative, and to innovate and collaborate with others.

Top performers also tend to be relationship oriented; they are able to quickly identify key stakeholders, staying close to customers and advocating for their interests (customer-centric thinking). They also have strong internal networks with colleagues across the organization and often with peers in other organizations in the same industry. They are then able to gain and apply a broad perspective on how to get things done most effectively.

Resilience and perseverance are the final characteristics that seem to span multiple roles and to achieve breakthrough results. Top performers seem to push through adversity, often defining new pathways to do so. They adapt to change and may even become champions for change, stepping into informal leadership roles to guide others to the goal line.

While these observations may not speak to specific learning and development solutions, they do suggest a new perspective on human capital management. These themes so central to performance excellence suggest our need to consider different recruiting messages and tactics, varied questions for potential hires to reveal their natural curiosity, and opportunities to identify high-potential, persistent employees in whom we want to invest to retain and grow for our future success.

For more information on successful strategies that will ensure your people strategy is focused on training and development, please explore People Development.

About the Authors

Sydney Smith
As I meet new people, I often share in my introduction that I’m an Army brat. I share that not only because I’m proud of my dad for his service (and my mom for her devotion to him and our family through all of our adventures), but also because it really defines so much about who I am. We traveled around the country as I was growing up and even spent a few years in Germany. Discipline was tight; love and family were even tighter. And my three brothers and I were continually encouraged to be all that we could be. (Sorry! I couldn’t resist.) So much travel growing up created a bit of wanderlust in me, which is not a bad thing for a consultant to have. Going new places and meeting new people is so exciting and rewarding and offers new perspectives and experiences each and every time. I really enjoy talking with people in all sorts of roles, getting a behind-the-scenes view of how varied industries operate. It is pretty handy to have had 16 years of experience meeting new people and establishing new relationships every couple of years. Before finding my ‘home’ with GP Strategies, I enjoyed a career in technical writing, still helping employees to be successful by creating user guides and similar documentation. That, too, required interacting with different people to understand processes and technologies so that I could effectively document them. While with Computer Sciences Corporation, I was also introduced to Total Quality Management (TQM) and found even greater interest in process improvement. That began to open my eyes to a different spin on performance improvement and became a wonderful reason to transition to a small company called RWD Technologies (later acquired by GP Strategies). One of the first things that attracted me to RWD was the motto: “Our focus is on the end users.” My early assignments helped to create a real passion for frontline employees and the work that they do. During those early days, I delivered some instructor-led training and was thrilled when I could see light bulbs going on around the classroom. Today, I find great satisfaction in working with people to uncover business challenges—analyzing the people, processes, systems, and technologies—and, together, finding ways to resolve those challenges. I’m still learning and growing by meeting new people all the time, and I am still thrilled when I can help light bulbs to brighten and problems to be solved.

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