Are Stars Born or Made?

Most leaders accept the assumption that success is largely dependent upon how many high-performing employees are hired and retained. Talent leaders are accountable for having the right people with the right potential in the right positions to support both current and future business needs.

They search for extraordinary individuals, working under the assumption that the quality of acquired talent is the dominant factor in determining organizational success — hence the focus on the war for talent.

The only problem with this thinking is that data doesn’t support this assumption.

Talented people sometimes underachieve. Potential doesn’t always equate to performance. Talent is a measure of the potential to perform, not of performance. As a result, businesses do not succeed because they have potential; they succeed because they produce results.

People with high potential don’t drive successful companies; successful companies are driven by people who accomplish outstanding results.

But what are the implications of an alternative assumption — that an organization’s talent curve does not predetermine its performance curve? It is possible to replicate the results of high-performing employees without replicating their innate talent and ability.

Leaders cannot succeed without talented people. But research has shown that exceptional results produced by exemplary performers are not dependent on talent alone.

In the book Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin writes of the following points based on his research: Talent, or innate ability, does not account for the variance in performance seen in business.

Intelligence and memory do not account for it either. Instead, the single largest contributor to exemplary performance, he writes, is deliberate practice.

A New Opportunity
Think about the individuals who work in an organization. There are likely a few high-performing employees who consistently produce exceptional results.

For complex, knowledge-based work, the difference between moderate and high performers can be significant. For instance, the best-performing maintenance technicians return the line to full production significantly faster than good technicians.

However, consider that the differences are between best performers and good performers — not between best performers and poor performers.

Imagine the possibilities in an organization if it acted on the premise that the talent curve does not predetermine the performance curve. What if a company could create optimal performance models based on high performers’ insights?

Under such circumstances, a talent leader would be able to assign employees to jobs that enabled them to perform at the top of their game with the right skills and tools to meet and exceed goals and objectives.

Managers and leaders would provide clear expectations so all employees in the organization knew exactly what was expected of them, thus there would be no conflicting goals, and feedback would be timely and accurate.

This would help to create a work environment and culture conducive to supporting and sustaining high performance on a continuous basis, and where everyone in the company feels like an integral member of the team.

The challenge is to examine the variance between good, solid performers and high performers. Based on data collected, a talent leader should be able to align distinct work systems that enable exemplary performance.

These systems are:
•Expectations and feedback.
•Rewards, recognition and consequences.
•Motivation and preferences.
•Skills and knowledge.
•Capacity and job fit.
•Environments, systems and resources.

A leader’s job in this instance is to be an architect who integrates and aligns work systems that enable everyone to more closely replicate star performance. Essentially, high-performing leaders create a team of high-performing direct reports.

Shifting the Performance Curve
Shifting the performance curve is all about driving results, enhancing revenue and improving margins. The methodology allows organizations and their leaders to capture more value with existing resources.

In a do-more-with-less economy, this strategy can differentiate an organization from its competition.The underlying premise for replicating high-performing employees is that exemplary performance is not reserved for a few individuals.

The bulk of the team is meeting expectations, represented by the vertical line labeled “standard.” However, almost all managers recognize that some team members consistently produce exceptional results. These high-performing employees are represented by the star on the far right.

The stars are individuals who have the potential to succeed and who make the effort to improve their performance. The implications of this are significant for those who manage others. If variance in the performance of people and teams is not determined by raw talent, then leadership has the ability to shift the performance curve.

Ask operational leaders what types of employees they value the most. Employees who know more, have greater skills and competencies, and score higher on relevant tests and those who find ways to stay productive all the time are valuable.

But it’s the employees who consistently produce outstanding results that align with corporate strategy who are the favored choice.

Create Profiles of Exemplary Performance
The most effective and efficient way to model optimal performance is to capture high-performing employees’ expertise. These individuals have established approaches to their work that consistently produce the desired accomplishments at a high level.

Think of these exemplary performers as internal benchmarks. They are operating within the same organizational structure and culture as the rest of the workforce, but they have found ways to exceed the organization’s expectations.

Identifying exemplary performers can be tricky because these individuals tend to be unconsciously competent. They often can’t share their approaches, provide clear explanations for their success or describe what they do differently because they may not know they are doing anything unusual.

Asking high-performing employees why they are good at what they do or how they go about doing their work is frequently unsuccessful for that reason. It is only through observation, interviews and case-based analysis that leaders can capture reliable answers.

By producing greater results with the existing workforce and resources, a significant percentage of the value of improved performance falls directly to the bottom line.

What if an organization was able to move even a small percentage of these average performers to high-performing status? The results for the company could be game-changing. Consider the following example.

If a project addressed a sales force of 400 people carrying an average quota of $1 million, the best sales people were generating $1.5 million in revenue. By analyzing the high-performing employees’ performance and developing a model based on their proven practices, leaders can better transfer best practices to the rest of the sales force.

By implementing this performance architecture based on the current high-performing employees, this organization was able to close the gap by 20 percent, or $100,000, skewing the curve to the right.

The shaded area of the curve equals an increase in revenue of roughly $40 million. This is the potential of internal benchmarking to enhance business results.

Paul H. Elliott is the co-author of Exemplary Performance — Driving Business Results by Benchmarking Your Star Performers. Butler Newman leads GP Strategies’ organizational performance and learning practice. They can be reached at