Simon Terry

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The Bottom Third

Elite sporting teams build a development culture because they know their performance can be dramatically influenced by the bottom third of players.

Discussing the many upsets and surprises in the 2016 AFL season with friends I was reminded that the performance of an elite team can be heavily influenced by the bottom third of its players. A champion forward is of little value if the ball never gets there due to errors on the way.  A champion midfielder loses value when their disposals are wasted. Even the best backs in the world can’t stop a consistent flood of attack due to the weakness of their peers.

Teams over Stars

Everyone has stars. Great stars will take you a long way. However exceptional talent is hard to come by and harder to retain. When it comes to the games that matter, great talents are also likely to be matched by great talent in the opposing teams. Everyone focuses on recruiting, rewarding and developing their stars. 

When you get to the games that matter, team performance will win you the game. Team performance is about collaboration, people playing their role and outperforming the entire other team, not one or two individuals. In that scenario, where star power is usually closely matched, consistently high performance is about the performance of all players. The game can be shaped by the relative performance of the two bottom thirds in how well they execute, learn and collaborate.

Now many use this rationale to adopt ruthlessness to drive performance edge, cut poor performers and replace them with new talent. At GE, Jack Welch was famous for recommending the bottom 10% of performers be cut, a practice that is widely copied. Accountability through choice of who is on the team is required in any high performance environment. 

Develop the Team

However, teams come together from groups of individuals working in concert. The stars need to work alongside everyone else. Stars need support.  More importantly, better performances come when everyone lifts their performance together. The collective effort determines the outcome. 

There is not always enough top talent available. The attraction of your organisation to top talent often depends on the team culture and particularly how you invest to develop everyone. Even Jack Welch and the successful GE organisation he led recognised that a development culture was important. Lifting the middle and bottom third through work on the development of people’s capabilities and by creating a great team culture is critical to sustained high performance.

Your Bottom Third

At an individual level, elite athletes recognise that there are good days and bad days of performance. Making sure that the bottom third of performance is better through mastery, practice and experience is critical to their ongoing careers. The bad moments are those where you fall back on elite disciplines and experience to see you through.

When you are good, you are good. How good are you when you are awful? How you use the least effective third of your time plays a key role in ongoing performance.

Talent matters. Investing in a team culture and the development of all individuals including the bottom third will matter to sustained performance.


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