Lesson 16: The Myth of the Well-Rounded Top Performer

 

I received my quarterly performance review last week. Each time, I question the validity of the system. Not because I scored poorly (quite the contrary), but because it’s not clear to me that the system is designed correctly for the startup technology world. It doesn't seem aligned to goals like changing the status quo, building a massive valuation, and crushing competitors.

The quarterly performance review instead reminds me of a school or university report card, which is set up to reward students for getting good grades across a variety of subjects. In QPR's, like report cards, there are several “subjects” (or themes) that an employee is “graded” on by their manager. These grades are supposed to indicate how well someone did in achieving their end goals as a member of the business.

To agree with this system would be to agree that schools and universities are set up correctly to serve the student’s end goals as well. But, because schools are focused on delivering well-rounded students, instead of exceptional talents, I don’t.

School systems, as they are set up today, actually fail students who are exceptional in one area. Students are made to focus on a variety of assigned subject matter - to the extent they bring home acceptable grades across the board. Well-rounded, we call it.

Failure to achieve good grades means the likelihood they get into the university of their choice decreases. Without an education at a good university, the likelihood they get the job they want also decreases. And so a musical prodigy spends many painful hours trying to get better at math instead of fine-tuning his natural abilities. Everyone loses.

Add to that the lack of coursework that actually prepares students for the real world, plus the insurmountable cost of student debt, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Students come out of school with loans to pay, and often no relevant exceptional skill. They’re average. Utility infielders, as they say in baseball.

Why have we carried this performance review system over to the startup business world?

I have a leader on my team that manages a business unit that operates like a well-oiled machine. They deliver 120% to quota every quarter. His team works hard, stays laser focused, and scales well - because of the good foundational process he has put in place. And because he doesn’t allow excuses.

He’s very direct. He has a reputation for being an asshole. Within his team, this works exceptionally well, and the same goes for top performers in other departments.

But, when his personality is at odds with an underperforming stakeholder who’s thin-skinned, it creates a problem. But who should change? I believe it’s the poor performer with thin skin who should change.

During the performance review process, I often feel systemic pressure from people who believe in a world where being well-rounded is best. That pressure means telling my top performing sales leader he should work on his personality. Change. Be different than what has led him to be successful. That seems at odds with the overall goal of the business.

I believe we should focus on harnessing the incredible differentiators that have catapulted top performers to success. Let’s get them to do what they’re good at, and do it more. Make them better at what they are already exceptional at.

If I were to apply this to sports, it becomes even clearer. Let’s take Tom Brady, for example. His instincts, decision-making, and accurate passing make him a winner. His legs do not. Brady can’t run to save his life. In fact, there are instances where Brady has a chance to run for a first down or touchdown, and he simply misses the opportunity.

Do you think that when his coaches review each season, they focus on making him a better runner? Do you think they’re focused on making his game more well-rounded?

No. They’re focused on taking the things he’s already excellent at and making him the greatest ever. To be clear, when he misses a first down or touchdown it DOES hurt the team in the short-term. But I’m talking about long-term strategy here.

In the long-term, Brady doesn’t change his game. He doesn’t start to think about running. If he did, his game would be different. Instead, he just gets better at what he's already excellent at. That’s why he’s holding up Super Bowl trophies every year.

So here’s my advice - don’t attempt to change your top performers. Don’t make them practice math when they’re a musical genius.

With obvious exceptions of being mean-spirited, negative energy, or doing things that are illegal - accept top performers for their shortcomings, if they otherwise deliver results that move the needle. Harness their best qualities, the ones that make them great. Take the focus away from what’s lacking. Put them in positions to succeed, regardless of their shortcomings. Someone else can do the math.

Building a business that changes the world, defines a new category, and hits a massive valuation is hard. You won’t get there with “well-rounded”.