Peak Performer Pitfalls

Peak Performer’s Pitfalls

It was over ten years into a career in computer technology before I took an interest in leadership and it took another ten years to get reasonably competent at its poor cousin, management.  It was the next five years of study into what makes a high performing professional excel and still consider myself a student in the subject.  I continually look for better ways, new ideas, and pitfalls to avoid.

Now I seek out people who are high-performers, or eager to become one someday.   As a consultant, we talk about the things that make them tick, and what next steps are they planning to take.  As a project manager, I work with some professionals who truly are tops in their field in some major industries.  In banking, power generation, telecommunications, and government, I have worked with some great people.

On my journey, I ran into some snares where I developed habits or blind spots and needed help recognizing and correcting some behaviors.  As I watched, I have also seen these same patterns in other top performers; with some variations, but many have been familiar enough to catalog.  Researchers have recognized many of these behaviors, and most of us would know a few of them – if not by name, by description.

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” Bill Gates

I find these traps are not something deliberate on any one’s part.  It is often something people fall prey to naturally and sometimes it is the pedestal we put people on that makes it hard to break.  Assembled are a few, but described in a way that I hope will resonate with the people that can help, or be helped by this list.  I ask as you read this list that you ask, “does this apply to me” BEFORE you think “Bob should read this list” (Whomever “Bob” happens to be).

The Only Way

This person is convinced that the only way to do something or to reach a certain level of success is to follow the same path as they did.  These can range from an unhealthy bias on business forms or preferred technology to outright snobbish behavior on social standing or experience.   The idea of class is not limited to rich vs. poor or labor vs. management.  Perhaps you have heard or used some of these:

“The only way to run a business is as a turn-key franchise…”: believing because they launched their business this way it is how things must be done.  Of course, there are many ways to build a business, but this leader will get stuck on their way

“The only real computer is my brand of computer”:  This one is a chorus from my past life in IT.  Often a technology expert will turn their nose up at any platform or approach that is not their own.  I still say this one, but just in jest.

“Can you believe he had a degree from a for-profit institution, and only a bachelor?”  There is nothing wrong with appreciating a formal education.  There are many ways, however, to acquire learning and there is a great mix of successful people who learned what they know both in and outside the ivy-covered walls.  Some people will site the silicon giants who never finished college, but there is terrific value in a life of learning wherever it is done.

The worst, and inexcusable, is the bias of things beyond one’s control.  To define a process or approach based on gender or race is unacceptable.   To claim that someone is naturally more capable for a field or role based on any of these factors and nobody could succeed without it is proven time after time to be false.

The only cure for each of these is the realization that human history has demonstrated that there is often more than not one way to approach an endeavor to be successful.  One should not assume that all ways are equally valid, but the history has proven that a single personal background, career history, educational credentials, ethnicity, or gender will not guarantee one’s success or failure.

Global Excellence – Halo Effect

This next area is related to the natural bias to assume that credibility in one discipline or skill has credibility in all.  Psychology and business literature often refers to this as the Halo Effect and both the person in the halo and those working with that person can contribute to it.  The innate human tendency is to apply credibility and trust beyond what is a proven skill.

For example, many may naturally assume a doctor would make a better hospital administrator because they are tops in their field.  However, the expertise of delivering quality medical care through diagnosis, interpretation, and execution of quality healthcare requires a very particular skill set.  A hospital administrator, who also provides for the implementation of quality care, needs different skills that may be at odds with the natural tendencies of a physician’s.   Here one’s Type A personality may be what got them to their position, but it would likely work against them as an administrator who needs collaboration and cooperation above drive.

A Hollywood actor makes a very eloquent spokesperson for a cause and can generate significant interest in an issue.  However, we often are treated to celebrities appearing before Congress as a subject matter expert, and it is hard to resist ascribing greater authority than may be warranted.

Some may think a successful programmer would make a natural manager of programmers or director of technology.  A popular idea around since 1969, the Peter Principle 1, describes the phenomenon of being promoted to your level of incompetence.  This occurs as one is continually advanced on the basis of past success rather than the candidate’s suitability (or demonstrated potential) for the next role.  Different positions have different skills requirements.  Very few people are experts in more than a few areas

We assume expertise in one area guarantees expertise in all.  Being successful is not a gene granting one capability “successfulness”.  In truth, there are qualities of success that indeed are in all successful people, but to say that one skill, one personality type, or even one experience or journey is the formula.

Bad Behavior Justified

Here we have the salesman who is rude to peers on the sales team or customer service people for example.  Managers whisper, “you have to cut Bob some slack.   He has outsold everyone else on the team.”  His performance may be higher but is it Bob’s brilliance or the negative impact he is having on the team.  In the TV show “House” the title character was a brilliant doctor with the world’s worst bedside manners.  He was dismissive of the medical team and flaunted every rule in the book.  We may snicker at his antics and be glad he saved the patient, but in the real world, he would have spent more time in court than in the hospital.

When good companies go bad, often is in thinking that one “rock star” performer is preferable to a team that is competent, has sound judgment and a is a good team player.  The idea of social intelligence is not a novel idea from the late 1980s but was called by name as far back as the 1920s2.   Similarly, researcher Napoleon Hill3 included having a “Pleasing Personality” in his 17 Principles of Personal Achievement.

Adherents to the idea that social skills are not important would do well to remember that the world is filled with potential rock stars, and high performers (the good ones) look to help others reach their own potential not stifle others for their own benefit.  Recognize you will find a ceiling on your career path and even your quality of life that would not be there except your own doing.

Hero Complex

So many kids dream of being the superhero character that swoops in just as the train is about to run over the pretty girl who has been tied to the train tracks.  As we save the save the damsel in distress, bystanders cheer our courage. The desire to do good is an honorable thing, but the desire to be the hero raises problems.   As a former programmer, I used to love coming across a person with a technical person and being the one person in the whole building that could spot the problem from 5 feet away.  “You just need to put the equals mark here so that your spreadsheet will update.”  It is the same rush we get when our parents approve of our report card, we clear a level in the game Angry Birds, or even in getting a paycheck.  The latter may feed me, but the appreciation of a rescued secretary is pure gold.

This behavior becomes a problem when we do it at the expense of others, or too often just for ourselves.  Sticking with the above example, enter a second “nerd” who is also talented.  Maybe even not as good as you but still good.  Repeatedly I have seen as each tries to be the alpha nerd – the smartest in the room.

This vice is not limited to technical skills.  One can be just as competitive in athletics, business acumen, project experience, or even communication.  This is not to say this person is a know-it-all who is just showing off, but rather that this person is waiting to swoop in.  Their help may be unsolicited or prevents others from helping.

This is not to say we should not be helpful.  But when you finish rescuing your next victim tied to the railroad tracks, ask yourself if the way in which you did it – was it showing off?  Did it crowd out someone else already trying to help, or prevent someone from learning for themselves how to do something?   Make sure the times you help, especially as a leader, you find ways to make the most good come from the opportunity.  Even if it means letting someone else take the bows.

No Room to Grow

Mac Davis had a great song for this issue.  The chorus is listed below.

It’s Hard to be Humble

 Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
 When you're perfect in every way.
 I can't wait
 To look in the mirror.
 ‘Cause I get better looking each day.
 To know me is to love me.
 I must be a hell of a man.
 Oh Lord It's hard to be humble,
 But I'm doing the best that I can.

While this is a humorous look at fame and success, and I hope we can agree, well beyond the typical, there is a bit of honesty in it as well.  The idea being that, at any point in our mortal existence, we have reached a level of skill, maturity, or capability that we can rest on the success to date.  That, what was working will continue to work for us.

In fact, a powerful principle of success for leaders is, “what got you here won’t get you there.”  Marshall Goldsmith looked at this in his book by that very title.   Goldsmith explains the problems for people who hit a plateau in their performance.   They have continued to do what served them well and miss the needed change in their efforts.

Life is a repeating cycle of learning, trying, relearning (or unlearning) as we grow.

False Perfectionism

One very inherent quality of many high achievers is the drive to improve and to contribute as much as possible.  What starts out as a positive trait can eventually devolve into a false sense of perfectionism.  Perhaps caused by a combination of several of the other foibles, this can mask itself as a drive for better quality.  Here, some examples include the manager that reviews a document written by someone else and always has a suggestion that could make it better.  While this can helpful when catching missed details or errors, it can also become a drive to pick each detail apart, beyond the critical substance of the document.  Recommendations on better wording may turn into a critic on font choice or writing style.

Clearly, there is the very real value of mentoring and coaching that each leader should be ready to offer.  The danger is an invisible line that one should not cross that goes from objective improvement to subjective preference.  Even a “less perfect” work may be sufficient if it allows someone else who performed it with some sense of pride and ownership.

The principle worth remembering is that often an imperfect 80% solution done by someone with 100% ownership and commitment delivers better than the perfect idea executed half-heartedly by someone who does not believe it.

Check yourself

So, did you find yourself in any of these?  You probably found a peer or boss, but I hope you also were willing to consider the possibility that one or more may apply to you as well.  You may even find that every high performer has a natural tendency to do one or more of these.  Most of these challenges are side effects of the same drive and motivation that makes people excel.  If you know someone that does not do something in this list, it could be that they already saw it or have been coached past it already.

You do not have to settle.  High performers know that the journey is never over and that the process is worth the effort.  Find a peer you respect to give you candid feedback and be willing to consider the possibility.  Failing to do so puts a cap on your potential that does not need to be there.  Each of these can be overcome.

[1] The Peter Principle – Lawrence Peter

[2] Edward Thorndike – Harper’s Monthly  Magazine.  Source:  Executive Presence: Monarth, Harrison

[3] The Law of Success – Hill, Napoleon