May 7, 2014
Elite Performers Don’t Warm the Bench
by David Nour
We increasingly need to make decisions quickly, so we need a bias for action. Think: How would John Madden handle this?
Every client I’ve found to be doing really interesting work fit this profile.
Smart, tough, curious
- The executives who get that what has gotten them here may or may not be the answers to their evolution as an individual, a team or an organization, are smart. You cannot train, coach or elevate the performance of people who lack a certain level of intelligence. These are people who’ve been there and done it; they have credibility and grit.
- They’re tough. They don’t accept fluff. They don’t need pedestrian advice. They’ve been there, they’ve seen it, and they have earned the acumen, not just read it in a clever op-ed piece. They need key people around them to constantly raise the bar on what they’re doing, not set the bar and forget it!
- They’re naturally and insatiably curious. They want to know about the thought or practice leadership others can bring. They ask deeper questions, like, “We have a conservative business model. How do I develop a robust digital strategy that allows us to think and lead very differently?” That’s an example of thought and practice leadership.
The focus of interactions is very much on output, not input. The best executives don’t care about some CYA report. The outcome they care about is, “How am I better off because of your unique insights or independent perspective?” They care about benchmarking global best practices, about ols that help them collectively raise the bar on their human capital agility and contextual intelligence! They care about attracting and constantly developing a world-class organization – with diversity of thought. They care about finding a methodical approach to gain mindshare and wallet share, which often translates into market share. Those are all “what’s in it for them,” outcomes, not deliverables, meetings or countless conference calls to discuss a meeting that’s coming up about a meeting that we need to meet about!
Above all, action
These smart, tough, curious insurance industry executives share a fundamental trait: They are very action-oriented. That demands a high tolerance for prudent risk. They realize that a conservative business plan will seldom suffice and that the need for making bets is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.
I was recently referred to the president of a global insurance company. During our second interaction, we had a chance to really delve into an intelligent conversation around what I call adaptive innovation – based on the ability to sense and respond to market trends. We soon got around to, “how do we introduce the team to some of your ideas?” I said, “A speaking engagement, an opportunity to share some of these insights with them, is always a good opportunity to plant a seed.” He immediately replied, “I’m getting my senior team together in Singapore in 10 days. I know it’s incredibly short notice, but could you be there?” That’s an example of an action-oriented mindset. He didn’t say, “Let me think about it, have my actuarial team analyze it, let me get 17 other proposals, discuss it with 18 layers of bureaucracy in my organization and get back to you in 2020.” I often say, perfection is the enemy of progress. And what I’ve learned in the past decade of advising truly visionary leaders is that power doesn’t corrupt; powerlessness corrupts!
The elite performers of the insurance industry, as in the world of professional sports, have a bias for decisive action. They’re not afraid to make a bet. They know that not every hit will be a home run but definitely understand, and make sure their organizations understand, that lots of singles and doubles often add up to a winning score after nine innings. That’s how the best of breed stay ahead of the competition.
How would John Madden tackle this?
When you work with advisers, you should do a John Madden on their assessments. Circle in green what you love, things you want to focus on. Circle in red what you don’t see value in.
These circles will start conversations: Why did you cross that out? What is that belief founded on?
The answers will lead to more questions: You say you have a great relationship with your customers, but you do you really know? Are you going to point to some stale survey you did five years ago?
By the way, when your metrics are at their best is the most dangerous time to become complacent. That’s when you really want and need outside counsel. You grew by 22% last year. Good for you. How do you know it shouldn’t have been 34%? How do you know the growth will continue this year?
Surround yourself with people who will push you with tough questions, and tell you what you need to hear vs. what you may want to hear.
The 21st century is an arena in which you cannot afford to stay still. That agility has to come from the top. You can’t tell me you want your workforce to be nimble and agile, if you don’t demonstrate that agility yourself. Don’t stay on the bench, or you’ll attract other benchwarmers. Are you going to swing or not?
1. If you segment the people with whom your work has had the most impact, you are likely to find the elite performers share certain characteristics. Figure out what those are, and aim to attract, retain and develop a lot more of them.
2. For me, “smart, tough, curious and ready to act” sums up the characteristics of my most amazing strategic relationships.
3. To put a scope to a strategic relationship, go at it like John Madden would—iteratively, in active conversation, with plenty of healthy pushback from both sides.