Why Do Good People Fall Short? Why do some people excel easily and others struggle to succeed? Find the answer to that and ideas on how you can help in this excerpt from Bringing Out the Best in Others.
Chapter 2: Discovery
What Creates Consistently High Performance?
Tony placed a small stack of papers on the table. He looked out at the five people seated around the table. “Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you are ‘only children’?”
Mary raised her hand.
“Now, all of you who are firstborns, raise your hands.” Three more: Mike, Janet, and Lloyd. Mary hesitated, then lowered her hand. “You too, Mary. An only child counts as a firstborn. Carlos, what about you?”
“I was second youngest of six,” said Carlos. “One older brother, four sisters.”
“Interesting,” said Tony. “Four out of five. In all the programs I’ve held on this topic, the average has been about 60 percent firstborns.
“You’re wondering why I asked that, aren’t you? It wasn’t because I’m nosy. Although, as others will tell you, I am certainly a curious fellow.” They chuckled.
“It’s because of something I became aware of about ten years ago, when I first started looking at this whole issue of high performance. Whenever I talked with a manager, supervisor, team leader, or executive, I would ask questions about their top performers.
“A sales manager would say to me, ‘What I need is four more reps like George.’ Not having a clue about this George, I would ask for more details. ‘Well, he’s a top performer in every way,’ the sales manager would say. ‘He does his homework on what the customer needs. He goes into each call well prepared. He gets in the extra call at the end of the day. And it pays off — he’s always number one or number two in everything we measure. Sales volume, gross margin dollars, new accounts, account retention, customer satisfaction — you name it, he’s there.’”
“Can you give me George’s phone number?” asked Mary. The others laughed. “I’ve got a spot for him. And his twelve brothers and sisters.”
Tony smiled. “Nice try, Mary. Sorry, George is happily employed — or was, ten years ago. But you raise two interesting points. One is about the brothers and sisters. That’s important, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. The other point is that you probably already have several potential ‘Georges’ on your payroll. Marvin could be a ‘George.’ Maybe Pat, too. I’m going to show you how to tap into their full potential, and why you’re going to see a bump in sales when you do. Ten percent, 20 percent, maybe even 30 percent. We’ve even gotten 40 to 50 percent improvement in a number of cases — and in a couple of instances involving just one individual and one product, we actually hit 200 percent. But 10 to 20 percent is the norm.”
Tony could see, in their faces, the effect this information was having on the group. They were silently working the numbers, translating the “bump” into dollars, or perhaps grades — all except Lloyd, who asked, “What if we’re not talking about sales or revenues? How do you translate that in terms of child rearing?”
“Good question, Lloyd. Of course we’re talking about something much broader than just a company’s bottom line. We’re talking about the behaviors that bring such results. You’ll see the same behavior improvements in Lori, Lloyd, although I doubt it will put your family in a higher tax bracket.” Lloyd smiled.
“Now, in your case, Mike,” continued Tony, “you’ll see improvements you can measure in terms of your students’ grades, attendance records, and so forth.” Mike nodded. “And Janet will use other measures of improvement — staff going out of their way to help others, better working relationships with admitting or pharmacy — and if the studies I’ve read are right, that will lead to reduced treatment costs and potentially even shorter hospital stays.
“But whether you can measure them with actual numbers or not — and in most cases you can — you’ll all see notable improvements after you’ve learned and applied the principles we’re going to discuss here.
“To get back to my story: The sales manager was describing all the ways his top sales rep was great, but this didn’t tell me why George was a cut above the others, why he was such a self-starter. It was the same with other people I talked to — department heads, engineering team leaders, principals, community leaders. Each would sing the praises of one or two outstanding performers.
“But I wasn’t learning much about what caused the higher levels of performance. I was looking for a pattern, a system. I hoped to find something I could replicate and teach to others, but high achievers just seemed to happen.
“So I began to dig deeper. I asked questions about the high achievers’ backgrounds. There were lots of possibilities — education, money, experience, the usual suspects. But these things didn’t correlate with achievement as strongly as I had expected. Trying to find some factor that could reliably predict success was like searching for a diamond in a gravel pit.
“Then I discovered something odd. I read a report that said 64 percent of the people listed in Who’s Who happened to be the oldest children in their families.
“One study doesn’t mean much of anything in statistics, but it made me wonder: Could it actually be that simple? Could being a firstborn make such a difference?
“I began to check out the statistics on firstborns. And what I found amazed me. So if you’re taking notes, here are a few facts to write down and think about.
“Fact number one: Two-thirds of all entrepreneurs are firstborns.
“Fact number two: Of the first twenty-three astronauts, twenty-one were firstborns.
“Fact number three: A ten-year study of 1,500 superior Wisconsin ninth-graders showed that 49 percent of them were firstborns.”
“That’s a nice set of facts,” said Carlos. “But what’s the relevance? We’re here to brush up on our leadership skills, not to learn how to recruit firstborns, right?”
“Of course,” replied Tony. “The same thought occurred to me. But you’re just a little ahead of the story. Stay with me a minute and you’ll see the point.
“More facts: Female world leaders between 1960 and 1999 — 45 percent were firstborn.
“Firstborns are twice as likely to become CEOs as laterborns.
“Fifty-five percent of all supreme court justices have been firstborns.
“Over half of United States presidents have been firstborns.
“Here’s an interesting finding. One study showed that more than half the people elected president of the American Psychological Association were firstborns. Incidentally, it’s the same with people who were elected to the National Academy of Sciences. And according to a study done in 1874, firstborns were overrepresented among fellows of the Royal Society, England’s distinguished scientific academy.”
“When you say ‘overrepresented,’ what percentage would you expect?” asked Mike. “Maybe there are just more firstborns than people realize.”
“Good question, Mike. In the general population, firstborns make up about 35 percent — including, as I said, ‘only’ children. This gives us a basis for comparison. For example, in one air force study, about 80 percent of high-achieving military pilots were firstborn. That’s more than twice the percentage you’d expect if being firstborn made no difference.
“Here’s more: 55 percent of highly creative scientists at one major chemical company — ‘creative’ meaning having a Ph.D. and getting more than one patent a year — were firstborns.”
Carlos leaned forward in his chair. “Just out of curiosity, do you ever find any firstborns among the lowest performers?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. For example, in the last study I mentioned, the chemical company, 14 percent of the ‘low creative’ scientists — that is, Ph.D.s with zero patents per year — were firstborns. In other words, being firstborn is not a guarantor of success — just a strong indicator.
“Now, this brings us to the issue Carlos brought up a minute ago: the leadership issue.
“This is a leadership program, not an employment practices seminar. We’re not here to learn how to round up firstborns and pen them in our corral. That’s labor intensive, not worth the effort you’d have to spend to do it, and it’s no guarantee of success. And — although I’m no lawyer — it’s probably illegal.
“But Carlos’s question leads to another, more interesting set of questions: What is it about firstborns that makes them top performers? Can we identify the environmental factors that tend to lead to higher levels of performance among firstborns? And can we use these factors to make a top performer — or at least a significantly better performer — out of any associate or employee? Or any committee member? Or any team or task force member? Or any student? Or any child?
“Starting with the people we have, how do we bring out the best in them? How do we tap their full potential? Not everyone can be great, but most can be better than they are. By leadership alone, can we get others to perform at higher levels simply by tapping into their full potential?
“You’ll notice that I’m limiting this discussion to environmental factors, not genetic ones.”
“Yes,” said Carlos with a grin. “As fifth out of six, I was ready to challenge if you brought up genetics.”
Tony and the others laughed. “Good. You’ll be happy to know that the only mention I’m going to make is this: There is no scientific evidence, or even basis, for the idea that the order of birth affects genetic makeup.
“But let me cut to the chase. I went looking for environmental factors. Specifically, what was different about the way firstborns were raised? About the way they were treated by the people around them, their parents, their schools? There are lots of possibilities, of course. Things like being raised by younger parents, which as we all know has its downside as well as its advantages.
“I read the psychology journals. I talked with child psychologists. I interviewed parents. I watched families in action. I learned a lot, and I identified dozens, maybe hundreds of things that could potentially influence success in life.
“But when it came to the differences between firstborns and the rest of the children in a family, there were three factors that stood above the rest. Firstborns get more positive expectations, more responsibility, and more feedback.
“These are worth writing down and thinking about. In fact, we’ll be talking about them for the rest of the day.
“First factor.” Tony turned and scrawled a large number “1” on the chalkboard behind him, followed by a single word:
“Expectations. People have more positive expectations for firstborns. They’re going to be president of the senior class, the all-star quarterback, head cheerleader, captain of the tennis team. Whatever they’re involved in, they’re expected to excel.
“Second factor: Firstborns are given more responsibility, and at an earlier age. They’re asked to look after and help take care of their younger brothers and sisters. When they all go to the movies together, or to the mall, or out to the street to meet the ice cream truck, the oldest is given the money, the cell phone, the directions on how to get there, what to buy, what not to do.
“Third factor: Firstborns get more feedback. They get more attention from parents, relatives, family friends. They have more pictures taken. Parents spend more time encouraging them to walk and talk.
“To me, this was very exciting information. It meant that we could actually identify three distinct conditions that tend to make firstborns better-than-average achievers. And having identified them, we could examine them, and study them, and learn from them. Then, perhaps, we could replicate them in other situations — business offices, retail stores, classrooms, civic organizations, even sports.
“You see, the important thing to keep in mind is that these factors are not intrinsic to firstborns. They are plainly environmental. And here’s the most wonderful, amazing thing about them: it’s the presence of the three factors that makes the difference. It’s not about being firstborn — it’s about the presence of the three factors. Sure, they happen to be present more often with firstborns than with those born later. But when we’ve put these three factors into practice with later-born children, they have worked there as well. When we used the factors on a sales team, they worked there. When we applied them to manufacturing, they worked again. In short, everywhere we’ve tried them, they’ve worked.
“I discovered this when I dug deeper beneath the surface of what makes top performers. The more research I did, the more top performers I found who didn’t necessarily match the ‘first child’ pattern.
“For example, I talked with a number of high-performing and low-performing sales reps in wholesale distribution companies. Mary, I know this will interest you. In one study, I found quite the reverse of what I expected — there were more firstborns among the low performers than among the high performers.
“I thought, What the heck is going on here?
“But I kept talking with people. I began to focus more on the leaders, and I discovered something very interesting. The leaders of the high performers were actually creating the three factors in the job setting. That is, they were supplying the environment that usually gives the firstborn an advantage.
“In another of my sales rep studies, I focused specifically on how good the sales managers were at introducing the three factors into the workplace, and I designed a test to measure the results. And sure enough, the managers of the high performers scored 22 percent higher in their ability to create the three factors than the managers of the low performers.
“I interviewed company presidents who achieved that position before age forty. I didn’t find as many firstborns as I expected, but I discovered something just as significant. Two-thirds of them could identify a supervisor or manager or mentor from earlier in their career who created the factors in the job climate.
“The effects of expectations, responsibility, and feedback are age independent. They are something you can put into the work environment to improve the performance of adults. Janet, you can build them into your interactions with your nursing team, the administration, the pathology lab, and other departments to improve communication, attention to detail, cooperation — in other words, teamwork. Mary, you can apply them to your problems with Marvin and Pat to make them full-time top performers — and, not incidentally, raise the performance level of the whole sales staff. Carlos, you’ll find it will help you raise throughput, product quality, and most other measures of productivity.
“And, of course, Mike and Lloyd can use them on their kids, who are still in their formative years.” The two men nodded hesitantly.
Tony sat without speaking for a few moments. He studied the faces around the table. Janet was still hurriedly scribbling notes. Mary was tapping her teeth with the eraser end of her pencil. Carlos sat back with his fingers interlaced, lost in his own thoughts.
“Okay, right now you’ve probably got a lot going on in your heads. You may be thinking, ‘Interesting, but how do I put it to work?’ Or ‘I think I’m doing some of this now.’ Or maybe ‘Hmm — I’m doing pretty good on two of the factors, but not so good on the third.’ What I usually find is that people are already using some of these factors but haven’t put them together in a coordinated way. It’s almost certain that you’ve used them in situations where you’ve succeeded.
“Let me ask you a question. What have you done for yourself lately? Think of some personal goal you’ve set for yourself, one that you’ve followed through on and accomplished. Like learning a new computer program or losing weight or mastering Thai cooking.”
Lloyd’s eyes lit up in recognition.
“A few years ago I decided I needed to lose a lot of weight and get in shape. So I set up a training schedule for myself. You know, daily and weekly goals for running, weight training, calorie intake, and so forth. I charted my progress, kept at it for many months, and finally reached my weight and strength goals.”
“So you began the program in the expectation that you would achieve your goals, didn’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” said Lloyd. “Otherwise, I suppose, I wouldn’t have bothered to start.”
“You gave yourself the first essential condition: positive expectations. The fact that you expected to accomplish your goals made reaching them almost inevitable, didn’t it? I like to repeat what Henry Ford said: ‘Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.’ As a leader, your job is to help them think they can.”
“That’s a good quote,” said Mike. “I think I’ll frame that and hang it in my classroom.”
“Think about the second factor,” Tony went on. “Responsibility. How did you take responsibility for achieving your goal?”
Lloyd thought for a moment. “By posting my goals on my kitchen wall. I couldn’t miss seeing them every day, and to keep my conscience from bothering me, I stuck to the schedule. Is that what you mean?”
“Exactly,” said Tony. “You took the responsibility for your own actions. You set up meaningful but realistic targets, using short-range and long-range goals you felt you could achieve. You didn’t leave yourself any room to make excuses, such as deciding your goals were too ambitious or that you didn’t have enough time to spend on them. You planned responsibly, and you followed through on the plan responsibly.
“The third factor, feedback, is one you also built into your plan. You posted your goals for yourself, then you recorded your progress, day by day and week by week. In doing so, you encouraged yourself to keep working toward subsequent goals.”
“Yes, you’re right. I started walking and running six miles a week and got up to running four miles, four times a week — which I still do regularly. Took me six months to get there.”
“Good for you. Congratulations! So in meeting your goals and recording your progress at regular intervals, you achieved a feeling of accomplishment, which made it easier to stay on the program and reach the next milestone. That’s feedback. And it’s the third of the three factors that you’ve created for yourself.
“Now, this is what you’re going to learn to do for your folks at work, your students, your children. In this program, you will learn the principles in much more detail. You will devise ways to apply these principles to your individual situations. You will set goals to accomplish in order to address your issues. And you will measure the progress in a feedback loop of your own devising.
“You will learn how to introduce all three factors into your leadership practices, your relationships with the people you lead. You will find that these people will respond positively to the presence of these factors just the way others have responded — by boosting their performance.
“You will achieve results you didn’t think possible. Your low achievers will become high achievers. Your apathetic people will become engaged and more productive.
“The difference is that all of you, I can say with some assurance, are already self-starters. You’re accustomed to creating these conditions for yourself, and that’s why you’re successful at reaching most of the goals you set for yourself. You enjoy the process of setting goals and achieving them.
“Each of you has described the person or persons whose performance you’re concerned about. Now you will learn how to give them the same joy of accomplishment. That’s why you’re here.
“Over the next several hours, you’re going to hear three messages about bringing out the best in others — believe in ’em, hold ’em accountable, and give ’em supportive feedback. You’ll learn how the three factors work, the tools you can use to apply them, and the structures for putting them into practice. That’s what we’ll hold you accountable for.
“Then I’m going to turn you loose for ninety days. At the end of that time, we’ll meet again. You’ll tell me, and your fellow participants, what you’ve done and how well it worked, and we’ll discuss your actions and the results. In other words — feedback.
“And I have the highest expectations of all of you.” He smiled. He could feel the excitement building in the room.
“You will succeed. You’ll even surprise yourselves.”
Dr. Connellan is a former research associate and program director at the University of Michigan. A best-selling author, he is a frequent keynote speaker for organizations as diverse as Dell, Neiman-Marcus, GE, Marriott, Sony, and the Air Force Academy.