I have seen the challenges in identifying high-performing individuals from some very different perspectives.
As a pilot on the RAF Red Arrows, first going through, and then being part of, an annual selection process for a high-performance team.
Running my own small business with extremely limited time for extended recruitment, development and, to be honest, most HR-related activities. Plus an inability to pay top-end salaries.
Working with a hugely diverse range of clients and supporting them in building high-performance teams and organisations.
What makes for a high-performing individual?
I think that this question is highly contextual; you need to be very clear about what your measure of performance is. A solo sports star or specialist analyst could be a highly dysfunctional individual in terms of team dynamics but brilliant in their role, which they carry out more or less on their own. That is fine.
Equally, the measures of high performance may be very different being on a team as opposed to leading the team, or even the organisation. I identify three critical non-technical competencies in the professional arena:
Direction. The ability to set and articulate clear direction, or maybe vision. This is primarily an intellectual activity and more relevant for senior managers and/or entrepreneurs and owner-managers.
Leadership. The ability to engage, motivate and inspire others to follow you on the journey. This is a moral and emotional activity driven by your values and behaviours. It can exist at any level in an organisation and is not dependent on seniority.
Execution. The ability to get stuff done. This is a physical activity – something happens. It requires, to varying degrees, organisation, attention to detail and a focus on outcomes.
Which of the above is most relevant to performance depends on seniority, role and task. And in addition to the above competencies, there is a set of behavioural attributes, some or all of which will likely be present in high performers including, but not limited to, drive, focus, dedication and possibly the desire for external validation, a group of factors which can loosely be summarised as ‘the will to win’.
Why do some have this and not others? Academia does offer some insights including the mildly unpalatable. Research in the sporting field suggests a correlation between high performance and significant childhood trauma during the pivotal pre-teen years. That could make for an interesting interview question.
So, I suggest that the skills and competencies of high-performing individuals will be contextual; what will make for success in one field or situation, will not necessarily deliver in another. However, there is more likely to be commonality in behavioural attributes across domains.
How can high-performing people be identified?
If we accept the basic thesis above, the solution largely becomes self-evident. Test people’s skills and behaviours in context. Everyone tells you they are great on their CV and in an interview. Don’t tell me; show me. If I think back to the RAF pilot initial selection process, it lasts about four days, of which probably half a day is given over to functional skill tests and another day to medicals. The remaining 2.5 days assess your potential (practically!) to be an officer – a teamworker and future leader in the organisation.
For the Red Arrows selection, the basics above are already proven – you have to be an RAF Officer and current fighter pilot to apply. So the selection process is simply:
An interview – common sense / maturity test – you will be in the public domain
A flying test – pure skill test which you have to pass
A week spent with the team.
The last is an informal highly subjective assessment of cultural fit. This is likely to be a pivotal point of difference and so the team focuses on it in selection.
I have learnt the hard way not to just ignore the lessons of my previous experience in running a small business. I might not have the resources of the Red Arrows or the RAF available, but I do know that new joiners need to have two key attributes:
A-player in role
To take a look at the first, we work with ‘the candidate’ on an actual piece of work. For consultants I also want to see them present, and a piece of writing. And we invest social time in getting to know them. Why would I put my business and client relationships at risk by not testing the fancy words on the CV?
I have focused here on small businesses for obvious reasons. Larger organisations can often have a different problem – identifying and developing the high performers from within a large workforce. A systematic solution requires a particularly robust HR process, and for talent identification skills to be well distributed and exercised throughout the organisation.
That said, it is unequivocally possible for good leaders to unlock potential, to build the teams and organisations which provide the breeding grounds for high performance, from which the high performers themselves will naturally emerge.
If teamwork and leadership potential are important to the organisation, then those factors must be given equal weighting to functional skills as criteria against which recruitment, selection, development and promotion should take place. To do that is an intellectual leap of faith. Return on investment in behavioural attributes will not be seen this quarter and maybe not this year.
If you focus primarily on skills, execution and short-term outcomes, you will get managers and competence. These factors will always be essential building blocks. If you want high-performing though, you need the people who can build the breeding grounds and to put an additional and equal, if not greater, focus on values, behaviour and ‘cultural fit’, from day one of the career management journey.
Leadership development might be a leap of faith, but the returns can be exponential.
Justin Hughes is a former Red Arrows pilot and the managing director of Mission Excellence.