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Geoff Colvin

Geoff Colvin

Geoff Colvin is a senior editor-at-large of Fortune Magazine and the author of Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.

The unconvential performance idea that works

Maybe it's too soon to exhale. We're surrounded by hints that the economy might not be rebounding as strongly as we'd hoped - the latest scare being recent market drops on fears that the Euro crisis could hurt the U.S. - meaning business leaders could be under extra pressure to deliver better performance.

But how can business leader improve performance? Not by being conventional or incremental. I'm always amazed by leaders who think they can get dramatic improvement by just tweaking their longstanding practices. The truth is you can indeed produce dramatically better results -- if you're willing to try some fundamentally different approaches.

The good news is that some extraordinarily effective approaches are available, and they aren't speculative or untested; they're just unconventional in business. That means they offer tremendous opportunities.

Here's an example. A medical products company, B. Braun Medical, used one of these unconventional approaches for preparing its sales staff to sell a new product during the recession. They based their approach on the voluminous scientific research into great performance.

Instead of just telling the salespeople about the new product, the company made them prepare presentations about it and then practice those presentations in front of company managers, who critiqued each session - not just once or twice, but many times over six weeks. These salespeople also watched video of their own evolving presentations and critiqued themselves. In addition, they repeatedly practiced using the device - which had to be inserted into a vein - on highly realistic medical simulators. They repeated all these tasks at high volume over many weeks with lots of feedback on performance.

Two things happened:

First, the salespeople all complained. This was new, it was different, and it was way more work than they were used to doing. They most emphatically did not like it while they were doing it. As a company executive told me, the leaders got "significant pushback" from the sales staff.

Second, the results were astounding. Conventionally trained salespeople were getting about 25% of customers to convert to the new product. After the new and different training, 95% of customers converted. This was not incremental improvement; it was unlike anything the company had ever experienced. The difference was worth millions of dollars.

What are the lessons? Most important, the principles of great performance work in business. Those principles are pretty basic. Great performance results from a person being pushed just beyond his or her limits through activities that can be repeated at high volume with a great deal of feedback. Really excellent performers do that every day. World-class great performers do it hours a day for at least a decade and often much more.

If that seems totally unsurprising, then we have to ask: Why do so few business leaders apply these principles in their work? The principles were identified and crystallized mostly from the study of non-business activities - sports, music, chess, aircraft piloting, and others. Every business leader is deeply familiar with at least one of those domains. So why on earth do so many leaders seem to believe that what makes athletes and musicians great is not what makes business people great?

In business, somehow, we're not expected to prepare ourselves the way great performers in every other field do it - we're just supposed to go out there and perform and by some miracle be outstanding. Of course it rarely works.

I realize that the great performance principles are very non-mainstream at most companies. We hardly ever think of practicing our work in the way that athletes, musicians, jet pilots, and others do. But why not? There's no good reason; it's simply an old mindset.

These principles can be applied not just to sales situations but also to every other aspect of business and leadership. You can find ways of applying them in the work of others and in your own life. I've seen it done. Doing it requires imagination plus a willingness to puzzle your colleagues with your odd behavior, to be thought strange, to be objected to. Successful leaders - unlike most people - are willing to do those things.

It seems the economy way not be giving any business leader a tailwind for a while yet. The rewards of dramatically better performance are even greater than usual. In light of what we now know - and what most companies ignore - about great performance, that looks to me like a big opportunity.

By Geoff Colvin

 |  May 19, 2010; 9:38 AM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

Reinvention of the wheel belongs to On Success.

Never stop breathing? Operations?

recert's and retraining? that's evidence of old an in-active leadership. managers and leadership should be removed.


on that point
first,i consider any rejected "plans" on increasing sales, the property of the individual who proposed it and not subject to company ownership clauses.

second, resume's do not fall under corporate, classified information policy.

and finally, Success! is rated when use your resume to chart industry direction,a different version for each company, based on personal strategy with a focus on exploiting greed and power.

You seem in charge. it's been a pleasure.

Posted by: JD_W | May 24, 2010 1:49 PM
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