The Importance of Excelling vs. "Getting By"

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

Once every few years I am driving a car that runs over a nail or sharp object and develops a flat tire.  Sometimes I have time to wait for AAA to come out and change it.  Other times, I’m in a hurry and tackle the task myself.  It never is pretty.  I’m slow and the process is grimy; but in the end, the job gets done.  I have no intention of working on that skill because I don’t intend to do it often, and it simply isn’t important in the bigger scheme of things.

That stands in huge contrast to how I view the responsibility of being a leader.  If I or anyone else does that job poorly, just getting by; it impacts lots of other things and people.  The organization suffers.  Customers are not well served.  Employee morale goes down. The financial performance of the firm declines.  Good people are more inclined to leave. There is a great deal riding on every leader’s performance. Performing at the “just get by” level is totally unacceptable.

For much of my career over the past 50 years in the leadership development arena, I have focused on helping new supervisors get up to speed and helping them function adequately in their new role.  This development was also geared to helping those who were having real problems see how their current practices could be improved.  Frankly, it was often perceived as remedial.

In recent years my focus has shifted.  Now my emphasis is on helping leaders to excel, to perform like the very best.  It has been an exciting and rewarding change in perspective.  By helping people raise their sights, there is an even bigger contribution to the success of the organization.

While most organizations have a handful of new managers and those who are not doing really well; every organization has a large number of leaders who are performing at an acceptable, but not great level.  Every organization gains when they move beyond fixing just the bottom 10%.  Remarkable improvements take place when they inspire that large group that sits comfortably in the middle to do what it takes to behave like the top 10%.  The most rewarding improvements occur when the people in the middle reach for excellence.

The pursuit of excellence calls for different tactics.   Teaching the basics or providing remedial help involves some fundamental teaching methods.  Helping people to jump to a higher plane and truly excel requires them getting accurate information about what they are doing well and what could be fine-tuned.  Our research confirms that the leaders in the top 10% on at least 3 key strengths areas are considered extraordinary.  When they operate at the 90th percentile in at least 3 key areas, they truly stand out.  Anything less than 90% is “just getting by.”  Helping every leader to identify their core strengths in embryo stage and supercharge them to that 90th percentile the key challenge facing leadership development professionals today.

What can you do to help someone else identify their areas of strength?  Have you been able to offload some areas of weakness and focus on your strengths?  How has that affected your career?  Share a comment below or share this post with a friend.

Jack ZengerThis is a guest post by Jack Zenger, the co-founder and CEO of Zenger Folkman, a leadership development firm focused on building strengths of individuals, teams, and organizations. Jack is a co-author of the recent Harvard Business Review article “Making Yourself Indispensable.” To learn more leadership tips from Jack, subscribe to his leadership blog or follow him on Twitter: @zengerfolkman.

 Photo: good ’nuff road – sign © monamakela.com Fotolia.com


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About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

steve Werner  |  13 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Excellent article.

I’m actually happy when people just “want to get by” for two reasons
1) I creates less competition for people like myself who want to excel
2) Like you mentioned it is an eye opener for those who want to push to the limit. They are often convert able.

The best way to help people identify their areas of strength is to ask them what they are good at. Most people know deep inside but until they are put to the question often keep their feelings buried.


Mike Henry  |  13 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Steve, thanks for the great observations. Your reasons for being happy about people who just want to get by are great ones.

But I’ve taken several different assessments and learned about myself from most of them in some degree. Some of us aren’t as clear on our strengths.


Justin  |  15 Oct 2011  |  Reply

I’m in an environment where that is the norm. I agree with Steve in that you can move forward because your pace is greater than theirs, but in many ways it is like being on a team that is okay with having a .500 record all the time. You can superstar on a mediocre team, but that has diminishing worth after a while. At some you have to decide whether that is an environment is suitable for your personal development because self-motivation can only take you so far and believe you have to be connected to a community for a greater good. At least, that is why I need and currently searching for that.

Mike Henry  |  15 Oct 2011  | 

Thanks for the great addition Justin. It is difficult to be the star performer on a “just getting by” team and I think your observation that “has a diminishing worth after a while” is very astute. Thanks for reminding us about the importance of community and the culture therein. Mike…

Mark McGuire  |  13 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Greetings, Mike

I agree that many people are not aware that they have significant strengths. This is especially the case for those who, due to their position in the hierarchy or constraining job description, have never been given the opportunity to find out what they can really do. Leaders cultivate followers; rulers surround themselves with subjects; catalysts initiate change. The world needs more catalysts.


Mark McGuire

Mike Henry  |  14 Oct 2011  |  Reply

I agree Mark that we need more catalysts. For me, due to a number of factors including the way I’m made and my experiences growing up, I under-appreciate the things I’m good at. Also, people who are reasonably good at a number of things find themselves focusing on what they’re good at in a particular context rather than pushing through to their core strengths. At least that’s been my experience.

Catalysts enable us to join causes and change contexts. Both activities are key to discovering strengths and actually “doing” the thing will always trump simply taking some test. The confidence that we did something and created a result cements our understanding of our strengths. Mike…

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