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.

Share Your Development Plan Out Loud.

Working out loud can accelerate development. Share your Development plan with your team. They know your weaknesses already and they are in a great position to coach and support your learning.

When I worked in corporate life, I always managed to shock a few of my colleagues, both peers, team members and others, by sharing my development plan openly with them. My thinking was pretty simple. The benefits of sharing the plan were real.

My colleagues work with me every day. They know my strengths and weaknesses, usually better than I do. They are a great source of coaching and feedback. Sharing my plans with them authorised them to say “hey, Simon, you are doing that thing on your plan”

Acknowledging that I am trying to develop and sharing how was a great way to gain their trust and their support in the changes I was seeking to make. People valued the honesty and the effort to improve. People that I mentored valued the insight into how I put together my plan and where my efforts went. People went out of their way to give me suggestions and to work with me when their development needs were aligned. Peers and my teams also held me to account to do what I had openly committed to achieving. Most importantly, I was publicly role modelling what I asked them to do each day.

In addition, being explicit on when I was hoping to move roles and where I was hoping to go next helped the team around me to understand how they needed to develop and what opportunities that they might have ahead. Instead of succession planning being a mystery, it could be an open conversation in the team. 

Take your development plan. Remove anything that is truly confidential or relates to others. Then share it will your colleagues. Get ready for some great conversations to help you and your peers grow.

Swapping Hard and Soft

Management likes to talk about the hard skills and the soft skills of managers. These terms are usually applied backwards.

Hard skills are the decision-making, analytical, performance oriented skills of traditional management. Hard skills are a matter of education, experience and practice. The hard skills are mostly transactional, process-driven and mechanistic. Done right there is little variation in the outcome of the hard skills. If you are a manager for long enough, you can do the hard skills. They are just a ticket to the game.

Soft skills are the people & stakeholder skills, like building trust, fostering motivation, developing people, managing conflict and team building. In most cases, it is a challenge to know whether you have done these skills well and the results of actions in any scenario can vary widely.  These are the skills essential to realising the potential of people in any context but particularly in a world of networked knowledge work. This is the work of leadership and it must be learned the hard way.

Time to Swap

The terms hard and soft are backwards. In a culture of hierarchy, command and control and engineering mindsets, it suits management to think of the manager as engineer tackling the hard work of decisions, managing the machine and delivering results. Hard skills start to sound like they are most important in a culture where power really matters. 

Except it is easy to make a decision. It is far harder to have that decision stick and be embraced by other people. Try to coach another person and you soon realise that developing their potential and helping them is not easy.

The soft stuff is what unravels the hard stuff. You need both people and power in management. The soft stuff is far harder than setting the levers on a machine.

Leadership is work.  Hard work.  Importantly, it is the hard work that matters most to realise the potential of your people and to benefit from the future of work in a networked knowledge economy.

Swap your view of what is hard and what is soft.  Better yet leave them both behind as terms that belong to the last age of management.

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