The Importance of Excelling vs. "Getting By"

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.

This 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 ©


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