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Exemplary Performers

I was fortunate to have a conversation with Dr. Dean Spitzer. Dean is a pioneer in the fields of performance measurement and knowledge management. He is the Author of the best seller ‘Transforming Performance Measurement’.  

This article summarises this conversation on his experience with exemplary performers.

The conversation frame:

  • Why are some people so successful? 

  • Why do leaders often accept performance that is “average”?

  • How can high-leverage know-how be uncovered?

Social scientists have been studying human performance for generations. The answers to the questions are simple, profound, and often straight-forward to put in place. 

We know exemplars in any job are not better in every aspect of their performance. Exemplary performers usually have a subtle technique or improvement that makes them a high performer, but reasons for being outstanding are not always visible! 

These performers exist everywhere, in every field of endeavour, and in every organization! They are an untapped resource because few organisations manage to uncover and discover the “secrets” of their success –often called tacit knowledge. Uncovering these hidden jewels and sharing them in a way to stimulate learning and re-use by others in the organisation is a performance advantage. 

Critical and unique know-how

These high-level performers excel in their job under the same conditions as average performers. They simply know how to make their work easier and more successful. They are an in-house gold mine of on the job performance! 

Every employee (worth hiring) does their best to perform and contribute. Each day they demonstrate what high performance looks like to them through their actions, know-how and behaviours. Although every employee learns best through on the job action, few will uncover their high-leverage, exemplary performance know-how. Their performance delivery comes from deep inside their repertoire of experience. Making what they know more visible to them will improve their performance as they are usually “unconsciously very competent”!!

Specific performance gems

Exemplary performers are up to 200% more effective than average in their role. They often work unnoticed and underappreciated in conditions that are routine or business-as-usual. Most are invisible because they perform with no fuss and the exemplary aspects are often hidden in their total job performance –or hidden in a mediocre job review process. The performance review should be an opportunity to make the invisible visible, but rarely is.

So how to spot them and their gems? The traditional performance appraisal and supervisory systems look at the whole job. That process is not designed to spot exemplary performance or encourage top performance. It is usually a regression to the mean approach. A poll from HR magazine in 2012 found 98% of over 2500 polled (HR managers, CEOs and employees) rated the performance review process as unnecessary to performance. When done well it is the communication and measurement process that uncovers and encourages exemplary performance. Changing the review to a frequent inquiry conversation is fundamental to uncovering and preparing for exemplary performance. This is how the best in sport do their work.

Exemplary performers exist in every field: 

We can recognise the impact of these performance gems in every field.  

Great performers have subtleties in technique and perspective, which they excel at. They can synthesise many inputs making their performance advantage difficult to identify. It is often assumed due to some innate ability. It is not this alone. Great athletes and exemplary performers are born then made! They are deliberate in their work to hone their technique and maximise performance. They refine a vast repertoire of options into what is a solution for them right now in the present moment. They make the right decision at the right time more often than others.

• In baseball, a pitcher often develops a subtle way of holding the ball for unique rotation. They adjust their stance and grip for an unusual number of hits compared to peers. A base-runner anticipates pick-off attempts and steals more bases than the average player. They often can't articulate how they do it. 

• A great chess player can anticipate the moves of their opponents in advance. In an interview after the match they cannot describe how.

• Exemplary doctors diagnose patients more quickly and accurately. Lessons not taught but evolved as they honed their repertoire of know-how.

• Great innovators know how to focus on what is most important. They pursue and create. Diversity of thinking is important to them. They make the right connections of people and perspectives.

• Exemplary leaders see the knowledge potential in a room and in a team. They have honed their productive social mapping and fill the gaps in their own thinking. They lift performance and make things happen.

• Great designers focus on the most important elements and filter out the rest. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, focuses on ‘making driving fun’, not just manufacturing vehicles. His team has had their potential unlocked, through fun, focus and finish. 

Identifying Exemplars in Work 

Exemplary performers uncover and respond to the critical-few success factors (CSF) of performance. They have simplified the complex, synthesise the context and make the right decision at the right time. They have found their personal CSFs and can point to organisational CSFs. 

Exemplary performers can unlock the wisdom of their team. They often ask the right questions and succeed through skilled inquiry and reflection. Their creative questions inspire change. They are often camouflaged by the more standard statements and monologues from others. Exemplars ask more and reflect more. Their questions are important to organisational change and adaptation. 

Exemplary performers have wisdom more than information and knowledge. When they are quiet in their effectiveness we fail to identify them and extract their wisdom. The wisdom of the exemplars is an untapped resource inside every organisation.

Exemplary Knowledge: an essential resource

Today more than ever organisations need to leverage their intangible wisdom assets. Who are your employees or teammates doing some things better than most? Not necessarily the whole job but components that stand out. They are the pieces to the 'exemplary performance puzzle' an organisation needs. Exemplary know-how captured and shared has the potential to be a significant competitive advantage. 


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