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How To Grow Star Performers

Most of us can divide the people in our organizations into three categories: Star performers, moderate performers and substandard performers.

Suppose you have 100 employees. In a typical work force, that would probably mean 15 star performers, 83 moderate performers and two substandard performers.

Now suppose you could convert five of your moderate performers into star performers. Would it make a significant difference in productivity?

You might be surprised. A study of computer programmers at Bell Laboratories showed that the star performers outperformed moderate performers by a margin of 8-1. If that holds true in your organization, the conversion of five of your moderate performers into star performers would be the equivalent of adding 35 moderate performers to your work force.

Where are you going to find the five additional star performers?

You don't find them; you develop them.

The difference between a moderate performer and a star performer seldom lies in their innate abilities.

You didn't get through the door of Bell Laboratories unless you were smart. So why did 85% to 90% of the smart people who were studied turn in mediocre performances?

The difference was found to involve the employee's approach to the job.

At Bell Labs, as with an increasing number of today's cutting-edge corporations, engineers worked in teams. Nobody has all the background, knowledge, and insight necessary to carry out a complex project.

In such a setting, the effectiveness of individuals may have less to do with what they know than it does with their ability to share their knowledge and expertise with others on their teams. It also has much to do with their ability to absorb and use the knowledge and expertise of others.

It isn't enough to possess knowledge and expertise. It's what you do with the knowledge and expertise that counts.

Star performance on a work-place team follows the same principles as star performance on an athletic team.

A talented quarterback on a football team will get nowhere without knowing who's good at running for short yardage, who's good at receiving a long pass, and who's good at the sweeping end run. He also needs to know who will protect him against a rushing offense.

Star performers in the work place also need to know where to go for the cooperation, support and expertise they need to do their jobs. And they need to recognize the places where their own knowledge and expertise can contribute to team results.

The Bell Labs study identified nine work strategies that characterize star performers. All of them are qualities that can be inculcated through a good corporate education system.

According to researchers Robert Kelly and Janet Caplan, these qualities are:

1. Taking initiative: accepting responsibility above and beyond your stated job, volunteering for additional activities, and promoting new ideas.

2. Networking: getting direct and immediate access to coworkers with technical expertise and sharing your own knowledge with those who need it.

3. Self-management: regulating your own work commitments, time, performance level, and career growth.

4. Teamwork effectiveness: assuming joint responsibility for work activities, coordinating efforts, and accomplishing shared goals with workers.

5. Leadership: formulating, stating, and building consensus on common goals and working to accomplish them.

6. Followership: helping the leader to accomplish the organization's goals and thinking for yourself rather than relying solely on managerial direction.

7. Perspective: seeing your job in its larger context and taking on other viewpoints like those of the customer, manager and work team.

8. Show-and-tell: presenting your ideas persuasively in written or oral form.

9. Organizational savvy: navigating the competing interests in an organization, be they individual or group, to promote cooperation, address conflicts, and get things done.

Star performers and their run-of-the-mill colleagues differed in two distinct ways:

- The way they ranked strategies
- The way they described strategies

Star performers considered initiative, technical competence and other cognitive abilities to be core competencies. Show-and-tell and organizational savvy were on the outer edge of their circle of importance.

Middle performers placed show-and-tell and organizational savvy at the center. While star performers were focused on performance, middle performers were focused on impressing management.

Initiative meant one thing to star performers and quite another to the middle performers.

One middle performer told of gathering and organizing source materials, including documents and software tools, for a project he was beginning with his group. Another described writing a memo to his superior about a software bug. Both thought they were showing initiative.

But star performers regarded these as routine actions. Of course you fix a software bug when you find it. Of course you prepare in advance for a project. So what else is new? To them, initiative involves much more.

Star performers and middle performers also showed marked differences in their attitudes toward networking.

The middle performers waited until after they had encountered problems before looking around for someone who could provide help and support.

The star performers built a network of helpers and supporters in advance, so that they could call on them immediately when needed.

Some middle performers also lacked perspective. They understood the functions of their specific jobs, but they did not relate their jobs to the overall mission of the company. Nor were they skilled at identifying with the viewpoints of customers, managers or fellow members of the work team.

The study concluded that "Individual productivity . . . depends on the ability to channel one's expertise, creativity and insight into working with other professionals."

These are precisely the skills acquired through a good corporate educational program that emphasizes behaviors as well as mechanical skills.

Star performers emerge from educational systems tailored to the individual company and the individual job. They don't want to become clones.

Too many companies today are content with training programs that provide people with knowledge and expertise, but skimp on educational processes that teach them to apply what they learn.

You can train people to do the mechanical tasks related to your business. But you can't train them to seek excellence. You change that attitude through consistent input that appeals to an individual's self-interest and organizational spirit.

That is the function of a good corporate educational system.

copyright Nido R Qubein
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