Creating Great EmployeesA few years ago, The New York Yankees spent millions of dollars to acquire a number of highly paid, high profile players from other teams. The plan was to “buy” a World Series title. The hypothesis shared by the Yankee brain trust was this:

If we can acquire the best players available for each position, we’ll dominate the competition.

The Yankees didn’t even make the playoffs. Worse, the organization was now saddled with a massive payroll. Not a wonderful time for the organization…or the fans.

The Hypothesis Was Flawed

Simply assembling a group of high caliber individuals, those we commonly refer to as “A” players, doesn’t guarantee organizational excellence.

The organizational ecosystem plays a significant role in defining an individual’s level of contribution to the enterprise. “A” players are situational.

Nick Foles just won the Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles and was named MVP. Not too many weeks ago he was the backup quarterback. The prevailing opinion among the NFL prognosticators is that Foles was successful with the Eagles because of their system and offensive schemes. In other words, he might not perform at an exceptional level with another team. Nick Foles is the perfect example of situational excellence.

Situational excellence, when it comes to the talent in our organizations, is a critical reality we must confront if we desire to create a high-performance culture. As leaders, we must guard against the desire to fill the room with “A” players who have accomplished great things in other places. Greatness is not always transferrable. We all have witnessed examples of recruiting a superb talent from another organization that resulted in an expensive mistake. Conversely, how often have we been pleasantly surprised by the exceptional contribution from someone in our midst of whom we harbored no expectations?

In fact, the way a person operates and becomes successful in one culture can actually be counter-productive in another culture. For example, a leader may have been very successful in a culture that valued quick decision making and risk taking. Put that same leader in an environment driven by consensus and a desire to explore issues from every angle before moving forward. That leader’s assets will be sub-optimized, potentially relegating him or her to the realm of average performer. The organization now must contend with a frustrated leader who is arguably overpaid in relation to the contribution. This dynamic has an undesirable ripple effect across the enterprise, impacting morale and others’ commitment to the mission.

Grow Your Own “A” Players…Create the Conditions

My advice to business leaders is to start with the environment. Take the time to closely examine the context when assessing the talent in the organization. No one functions in a vacuum. Organizations are fluid, dynamic places and leaders have an obligation to create the best possible conditions, allowing individuals to reach their potential.

Leaders who learn to recognize and strengthen the internal elements that influence an individual’s performance are building the foundation of an exceptional company.

The reality is, many leaders are in positions of power because they have learned how to make quick decisions and put out fires. They are conditioned to attack the symptoms of performance problems that rear their ugly head on a regular basis. Sales slippage, a technology glitch, product pipeline constraints. All examples of lagging indicators (symptoms) that demand a leader’s attention.

There will always be fires to extinguish. The key to becoming a great leader is to become curious about detecting the glowing embers before the inferno got everyone’s attention. Fire Departments all have experts who examine a fire scene looking for root cause. Was it the electrical wiring? Flammable material near a furnace? An external catalyst, such as lightning? Our organizations deserve the same level of curiosity and thoughtful examination.

The Root Causes of Individual Performance…Cleaning the Aquarium

It takes a bold leader to recognize and address the organizational conditions that determine the health of the enterprise and the performance output of the workforce. Fixing deeply embedded cultural norms like top-down leadership styles or non-inclusive decision-making requires real courage and persistence. Too often, status quo takes hold and little changes. One CEO recognized the challenge in her organization and told me this:

We had to clean the aquarium before we bought new fish.”

Creating the time to assess the less glamorous elements of a company that underpin personal contribution is a discipline. Smart leaders have made it a competency. These leaders are curious about the elements and systems in the business that influences every employee’s level of contribution:

  • Are our managers good coaches of their people?
  • Are our senior leaders trusted and respected?
  • Do our compensation programs align with our strategy?
  • Do we have an adequate number of experts to execute?
  • What feedback mechanisms are in place to garner ideas from our people?
  • Does our performance management system encourage discretionary effort?

When the conditions are optimized, potential is tapped. “B” players will seem to magically evolve to “A” player designation. Teamwork thrives as people are inspired to help each other. Discretionary effort, the measure of an engaged workforce, skyrockets.

Fostering Conditions to Optimize Talent

Leaders of high growth companies have learned how to foster the conditions to optimize the talent in the business. It’s not about hiring as many “A” players as possible. That’s a recipe for disaster.

It’s about creating the conditions that foster discretionary effort and teamwork across the entire enterprise

Leaders who intend to exceed financial expectations do whatever it takes to avoid mediocrity within the workforce. They have learned that the organization’s environmental factors determine employee output and that recruiting high caliber talent is not the unilateral course of action. Churning through human capital can be self-defeating and expensive. The wise investment is in the internal conditions that drive individual commitment.

Contact Close Reach Consulting today to find out how to create your own high-performance culture that will exceed financial expectations.

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This article appeared on the blog in 2014 and has been updated for freshness and accuracy. You may view the original article by clicking here