The One About Performance

Performance is the prerequisite for any professional or organization.  It is the heartbeat of the body.

In December I posted an article on the lights of leadership. In the midst of a lot of feedback I receive on the writing I’ve done, one bit of feedback stood out on that particular piece.

It came from a gentleman who has been both a corporate leader and entrepreneur. In referring to the ways I listed to “light the lights of leadership” he said simply: “I’m glad you started with performance.”

It’s not clear to me that performance “sells” on LinkedIn or your average blog quite like a list of 5 things that will bring you wild success.

But, people who know, know.

I’ve had the privilege to write about a broad set of topics. I enjoy thinking through and sharing on strategy, leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation, and ethics. I view those topics as worthwhile to anyone looking to advance their careers and organizations.

However, there’s a point of fact that sometimes gets muddied up in all the organizational development, touchy/feely, and “strategic” thinking.

Performance is the prerequisite.

No matter what the collective business and organizational intelligentsia write and speak on, it all must relate back to performance–short term and/or long term.

That’s not to say that it does.

That’s to say that it should.

A leader with the best ideas on and reputation for people leadership, organizational development, and customer care but without a track record of performance might as well change careers.

To borrow a turn of phrase from the apostle Paul: If I have leadership ability that can move mountains, but do not have performance, I am nothing.

That may sound harsh and cold, but that’s reality.

It’s true whether you are a concert pianist or an investment banker. It’s true for athletes, doctors, and police officers.

It’s true whether you are trying to carry a football across a goal line, or seeking 20 basis points of alpha.

How often we forget this simple reality.

Performance is the currency of our careers and the building block of our professional names.

But, performance itself may be insufficient

If you look at the body of any leader’s work, the heartbeat is performance.  Results delivered by that person matter that much!

But, even a comatose patient has a heartbeat, so there’s much more to leading a than simply meeting objectives. The heartbeat is a critical necessity, though it may not be sufficient for a thriving, vibrant organization.

In my experience only very rare business cultures can hang their hats on performance alone. They look like professional sports teams and trading desks. I’ve been a part of both; and I’ve been around dozens of other corporate and organizational cultures.  I’ll just assert this:  It’s unlikely that your organization can rise (or fall) to this level of Darwinian objectivity.

Thus, we discuss results and leadership and vision and integrity all within the realm of the performance ethic.

The Performance Ethic

Show me a person who has a strong performance ethic, and I’ll show you someone who will likely contribute every day.

Show me someone with a strong performance ethic layered over with people skills and “other-oriented” values, and I’ll predict career success.

Performance ethic.

That is a concept that his highly distinct from work ethic.

Lots of people work hard and don’t perform.

It’s also highly distinct from smarts, intelligence, savvy, and the like.

Perhaps shockingly, it’s also highly distinct from a desire to “win.”

Winning matters, but it’s the definition of the contest that matters more.

As anyone who has participated in high stakes negotiations can tell you: Some of the best “win-preventers” are people who focus on winning the minutiae and lose sight of directional victory.

In American football, a lot of 15-yard penalties come from guys trying to win the little things (like that fight with the guy across from them) while losing sight of the bigger things.

The same thing happens in professional life.

A short win is just as easily part of a long defeat as a long victory. Ask any endurance athlete what constitutes effective performance, and the answer is most certainly not going to be “run every moment as fast as your body will go.” It just isn’t possible. You run the race so that you will win; but that does NOT mean winning every lap, stage, or heat.

None of us wants to be a part of a long defeat.

So what?

Let me outline a few ideas for what constitutes a performance ethic for leaders. This list will be incomplete. Trust me. Please help me round it out if you like.

  • A strong concept of performance: In short: What is the race? Is it quarterly financial performance or an enterprise positioned for success 3 years from now? How do you manage some of the tensions inherent to the two? What’s true north and do executives, rank, and file align on it?
  • A superior understanding of others’ concepts of performance: Do you understand what “winning” is to those around you and those who are instrumental to the race? One person’s concept of “performance” is earning the highest bonus possible. Another’s is building for the future. Yet a third person’s concept is simply staying employed or protecting position. Another wants only to advance her career. A person with a solid performance ethic assesses these things and determines whether he or she can “win” with the team they have or are a part of.
  • Daily delivery and ownership: Strong delivery today against the vision for tomorrow is a hallmark of a person with a performance ethic. Performers know that daily improvement underpins performance. Procrastination doesn’t.
  • An expansive view: Making performance an expansive thing shared by more vs. a contractive thing shared by fewer is an indication of a strong performance ethic. People who know business performance know that the pie grows with performance. The stereotypical bureaucrat only looks to divide the pie as it exists today.
  • Ability to attract others to a performance vision: The more senior you are, the more you must inspire others. Being able to attract talented people, inspire them, and have them deliver on a performance vision aligned with your own is certainly an aspect of performance ethic.
  • Transparent performance contracts: Allow others to get on or off the boat with real informed consent and high integrity risk sharing. An underlying theme to “Enlightened Strategic Leadership” in my practice is that social contracts within a firm should be transparent, particularly when they are in conflict. If you have a policy, follow it. Most (not all) organizations start this with their employee handbook.

Let’s talk performance.

Without performance, all the focus we see on LinkedIn about people, personalities, and career is just noise.

Performance is the prerequisite.

Author’s note:  Just as in most things, there is more than one way to “success.”  I hold out performance as the prerequisite. Many, many people hang their hat on patronage and politics for “success.”  I suggest we peer through those things and look at performance. 

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  1. […] or enable it as an executive, you’re probably not going to cut it. As I wrote nearly a year ago: Performance is the prerequisite. The latest management article on how mindfulness unlocks your team’s performance is all […]

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