13 May 2017

By Marc Wilson

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    We all want success. And as we embark on a career, most of us want to be successful. But when I probe aspirations, “being successful” is usually a proxy for “I want the rewards / power  /status of success.”

    If you think that business success has different rules to success in sports, less reliance on discipline, more reliance on connections and things out of your control, reconsider or stop reading.

    If your job is a ticket to a pay-cheque, is so-many-hours-per-day, stop reading.

    Brutally, most of us will not be successful. We will not achieve stand-out performance. We will under-achieve our childish dreams. Choose:

    1. Continue to fantasize OR
    2. Get real and set your targets lower OR
    3. Confront the challenge and do what it takes to chase your dream.

    Dreaming is important. It is the often the reason that we try at all. But the great achievers realise that a dream without a plan and action remains a fantasy.

    '…in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.” — U.S. President Barack Obama

    Obama was quoting 'When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.'

    When I was younger and starting out, I think I marked a lot of my desires for success in positions or promotions I hoped to achieve. In the first draft of this article, someone remarked that I had not mentioned promotion once. That is quite a stunning reflection. I believe my experience and growing up helped me realise that promotion and position reflect a result of success rather than success in itself.

    Many of us do fantasize. As adolescents, we dream of mansions and sports cars, of power and glory, of beautiful spouses and successful children. As we begin our career journey, these dreams inevitably meet reality. We may continue to deny reasons for the gap between dreams and reality, but many reach a realisation at some point that not everybody can be excellent – by definition. And that to be excellent, we need to be doing things better than those in our defined benchmark.

    We fantasize for good reason. Life is hard. As we become more experienced, we discover that achieving success typically requires far more from us than we imagined, we are not all exceptional, success is often dependent on the support of others – and people and relationships are not predictable. Life throws curve balls – illness, family needs and financial constraints to name a few.

    But if we are to undertake an adult approach to success, it becomes time to replace fantasy with a deliberate approach to achieving our dreams.

    What is success? At its simplest, success is achieving a goal. Being successful is therefore achieving goals regularly. But to most of us, being successful is more than this. Being successful in many people’s minds equates to excellence. Excellence – exceeding standard performance, standing-out, being the best. And pointedly, the rewards most desire for being successful equate with those for excellence.

    This is an important distinction. The definition of excellence seems to be far more closely aligned with the aspirations of those with the desire to be successful. The measures of excellence are far more objective and demanding than those of success.

    We tend to apply different rules to business success. It must be balanced. It must be within its 9-to-5 box. Here is my challenge to you: if you desire super-achiever business status, why would the lessons learnt from Olympian sports success be different to achieving Olympian stand-out performance in business?

    Olympic sports success is not balanced. It is not confined to a part of the day. Olympian sports success is obsessive. It is unbalanced. It is single-minded. It requires brutal sacrifice and pain (see the graphic to the left showing the cost and effort required to get into the Olympics – source: Voucherbox). Why would being the best in your business field require anything less?

    I think we tend to create an artificial distinction because an Olympic goal might be confined to a target by the age of 30. Thereafter an athlete can retire to a 'normal' life. Similarly, an overachieving student might single-mindedly pursue 'top-of the-class' performance knowing that the pain and sacrifice will end with the award of a degree. A business career is part of most of our adult lives and sacrifice for that amount of time is untenable for most people. For this reason, careers like investment banking and management consulting tend to have short lifespans before achievers move on to a second phase. I believe that for this reason they tend to attract more employees seeking super-achievement before the 'second-phase' – people will accept the discomfort for a short time horizon.

    I believe that there are fifteen determinants to achieving business-career excellence.

    1. Get real – look outwards

    It is impossible for everybody to be exceptional. Sports is an excellent classroom for learning about excellence.

    If you are a golfer, how good are you relative to the best in your club? How good is your club pro? Play a round with a club pro – they're often pretty amazing – they are seldom anywhere near good enough for play on professional tour. Now imagine the level of separation between them and a professional tournament winner.

    If you are a runner, how good are you relative to your clubmates in time-trial? How good are you in your local race? How different are these times relative to a championship?

    If you plot yourself in a distribution curve, realise the difference in performance and requirements to achieve in the top 10% of the bell curve (which will not be normally distributed – performance distributions are skewed) and a top 3 achievement.

    Study the talent and more importantly the effort of the achievers in your desired benchmark. If you are talented within your benchmark, that will seldom be enough to achieve. Excellence (given a strong enough pool of performers) is always accompanied by exceptional effort – that will cause you discomfort, pain and will take sacrifice.

    As you look outwards, appreciate that you have three dimensions that will contribute towards your excellence – your talent, doing things better and doing things differently. To truly excel, you will have to pick the right combination of these to tune your effort. Two alone will not be enough.

    2. Accept accountability for outcomes

    If you wait to do what you're told, you have lost before you have begun. You will not achieve excellence by performing tasks you are given. Excellence is about outcomes. What outcomes is your business trying to achieve and how are you contributing to them?

    It is easy to find excuses. Conditions to achieving success are seldom perfect or in our favour. We have to rely on others. There is not enough time and there is too much to do.

    Accepting accountability for outcomes means accepting that we can influence without control. We are the pebble in the pond and the butterfly's wings in the Amazon. It is empowering and daunting. It means that we can change any outcome positively – and that we are accountable for any downfall.

    This is too much for anybody to handle. Once you have successfully taken on a culture of accountability, your biggest challenge becomes giving yourself a break. But you will have power over your destiny.

    3. Calibration

    The third challenge in embarking on a quest to achieve excellence is one of calibration. At what level do you wish to excel? I.e. what group of performers do you wish to stand out from (your department, company, industry?) and at what level do you wish to stand out (top decile, top 3, best)?

    For those chasing the rewards of success (or excellence as I have now highlighted), what level of reward do you wish to achieve and what level of excellence is required to achieve this (what will it take to afford the lifestyle / rewards you desire and what benchmark do you need to achieve to get this reward – best in company, industry)?

    Realise this – without having set your own benchmark results and effort, you will calibrate incorrectly, you will incorrectly estimate the requirements and you will incorrectly estimate your capability. You will need to recalibrate once you have tried. Prepare yourself for this – interview achievers about what it took to achieve their success. Ask them about their expectations versus the reality of what it took. You will still incorrectly estimate your capability and the effort required.

    Do not be discouraged – you will never know how good you can be if you do not try. Calibrate progressively. Choose progressive benchmark levels of performance and reset after achieving each one. Again, sport is an excellent teacher: no novice marathon runner starts by aiming to be world champion. Progressive training, races and targets ultimately reveal potential and enable improvement.

    Remember too – promotion and titles reflect the result of excellence and success  – calibrate performance and effort, not just the result.

    4. Goal definition

    Specifically, what is the measure of excellence in the benchmark you have set? Is it peer-reviewed performance, client reviews, sales performance? What have the top achievers in your benchmark group achieved against these measures?

    Yes – you can begin exploring your goals by considering the position / promotion you wish to achieve. But ensure you work backwards from there to set the goals for your performance that will achieve that result.

    Start with the end in mind – if you were motivating the excellence of your performance at the end of a review period, would you clearly be able to demonstrate excellence against measures in your benchmark group?

    5. Gauge expectations

    Your view of yourself, your capability, your potential and your strengths and weaknesses is incomplete. It is very important to your confidence and health to be able to look back at your performance and be self-satisfied – especially if you do not get the recognition you deserve. But ultimately you want your peers and adjudicators to acknowledge your excellence. Make sure that you understand their perceptions of 'what good looks like,' the requirements to achieve this, their views of examples of this performance from others and their agreement on the measures by which your excellence will be defined.

    In individual sports, excellence is usually easy to determine – a winning score, time or result. In team sports or business, it is seldom so. Is someone who breaks a sales record excellent if they behave in a way that causes other members of the team to leave the organisation? Business excellence is complex. Make sure you understand the full set of performance measures and those 'values-type' requirements that are a ticket to the game.

    6. Be a sponge for knowledge about your field

    It is supremely arrogant to assume that without catching up on the knowledge of those you wish to excel, that you will naturally be able to do so. If you plan to excel, what performance are you excelling? How was it achieved? What worked for others and what did not? What was an absolute requirement and where might you safely exercise discretion or try and do things differently?

    Imagine a high jumper preparing in isolation seeing only the equipment and not discovering the Fosbury Flop. She would be starting 60 years behind her competitors.

    Understanding and staying up to date with information about your field is clearly important – but typically neglected. It takes time to keep up to date, but it is not enough. There is also the information required to maintain proficiency in your field. You are in business – are you up to date with the information affecting your business and your clients? I've been in meetings with clients and potential clients where I have been missing up-to-date information about a client's business. Nothing diminishes credibility more quickly than apparent laziness or failure to do your homework.

    7. Plan

    Everything said about planning has become a cliché. However, it is probably true that most people do not actually have a career plan. Most go to work to earn a salary and desire some recognition for a job well-done. You will not just achieve your target against your measure. There will be milestones along the way, there will be ups and downs. A marathon runner plans pacing, a sprinter works on their start out of the blocks through to their dip for the line, a cricket batsman must build an innings. In business excellence, you must break your target down into clear milestones or face too much to do as your target draws near.

    8. Practice

    It usually acknowledged as self-evident in sport that training and practice is critical to achieving in competition. Yet in business, most people seldom include this in their career plans – or expect it to be provided to them in the course of their job. If you wait to be provided the training and practice that everyone else gets, how is this contributing to your excellence? It is up to you to take on additional studies, reading and side projects to build an exceptional skills base. It is up to you to volunteer to carry out tasks, organise meetings and lead teams. If you do not consciously make this part of a plan you are unlikely to organise the development you need to exceed your benchmarks.

    9. Build competence and reserves

    It is critical to build competence and reserves in business as in sport. There are a few people who might have the natural talent to go out and run a marathon without any training or running history. Most of us will not succeed in this. And those talented few will not win against practiced competition. It takes long periods of time putting 'miles in the bank' or building a competence / reserve fitness on which to then layer exceptional performance. Competence builds capacity as well as mental / emotional reserves. And so it is in business. 'Core skills' is your cardio-aerobic fitness. Being able to take the inevitable knocks draws on your emotional reserves.

    10. Build a rhythm

    Excelling others' performance is hard enough. As Daniel Rowland helped me realise, if you have to perform on an irregular basis and draw on your reserves to conduct day-to-day or base activities, you will fail. Building a rhythm of the basic disciplines is critical to reserve your strength for improvement in effort. Otherwise you will have too much to do. This means that your planning, reviewing, feedback, reading, studying, productivity management, etc have to become part of a regular pattern and discipline. I think this is what Aristotle meant when he wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

    11. Seek constant improvement

    Recently, much has been made of the 10 000-hour rule – defined as 10 000 hours of practice required as a pre-requisite (but not solely sufficient) for excellence. Further evaluation has found that the 10 000-hour rule is better refined as deliberate practice. It is inefficient and ineffective to merely log 10 000 hours of experience – deliberate training and practice of those skills and behaviours necessary to achieving your target is required. Are you studying a course to log a qualification or to directly contribute to your output of an excellent business result? A professional athlete will stalk the course they are about to run / cycle in competition, practice segments or similar terrain and break down differing skills (e.g. hill climbing, sprinting) and build and practice these. How are you doing this in business?

    Truly great performers understand the potential of improving by percentages. When you start your journey, one percentage improvements will be easy – and give you the fuel to sustain your effort. But as great sports performers know ('give me consistent one percent improvement and very soon I will be world champion'), it gets harder. In the recent attempt at a sub-two-hour marathon, Nike and sports scientists sought fractional improvements from every source – shoes, pacing, drafting, nutrition, environmental conditions. Eliud Kipchoge improved on the world best time of 2:02:57 by 2m 32s – a staggering achievement (not a world record due to non-rule compliant pacing, etc). For almost all of us, there are gains to be made in almost every aspect of our performance by just adopting more of the habits and practices of the top performers ahead of us – and the fact that most of those whose performance we aim to exceed are not doing the same.

    12. Execute while being relentless and robust in obtaining feedback

    Some feedback is in the numbers. The sales target milestone, the organisation climate survey, etc. For athletes, much of their feedback takes this format – pacing, heart-rate, results. But a great athlete knows that there is more than this – how did they feel after a goal result? The sum of perfect training and measures is not necessarily equal to great performance on race day. Business is even more complicated. Homework, product design and relationship management in pursuing a sales result can be thwarted by using an unsuitable pitch to a client buyer.

    Feedback is hard. Putting in a huge effort and being told it wasn't good enough knocks most people back. Avoiding feedback is self-delusional. Worse than finding out your peers do not rate your performance highly is not knowing about it. Worse still, is not knowing what it would take to turn their perception around. Again, clichés abound, but be sure that getting good at obtaining and actioning feedback is one of the most important contributors to achieving business excellence.

    'Don't take it personally' is one of those irritating throwaways – of course feedback is personal. And those giving feedback are not always skilled at giving it. So get good at taking the knocks. Help others by asking for the feedback in a way that makes it palatable and useful, 'If I was perfect at this, which I'm not, what would I be doing better or differently to what I am doing now?'

    Action the feedback – preferably with the person giving it and ensure you book a follow up to check progress.

    Sadly, that other throwaway is true: 'Perception is reality.' If you are not aware and managing others perceptions, those perceptions will be the reality through which your performance is measured.

    Being robust in taking on feedback requires moderation seeking out advice and perception. If you are constantly told about areas where you need to improve, the journey becomes too tough. Similarly, if all you seek to hear is how well you have done and what you are potentially capable of, you will fail to understand the areas you need to improve. Build a support network of people you trust and who understand you well enough to be good at moderating feedback you need.

    13. Review your progress honestly and regularly

    Your enemy is the once-off performance review of your target. The result will be what it is. Break your review cycle down to micro-segments. Once you have planned and executed those critical tasks that will contribute to your success, review immediately post completion. Did you run a workshop to practice your facilitation skills? Review your performance against your target parameters the same day. Log improvement requirements and action steps.

    Use time blocks – if your performance target will finally be measured in six months, you have five month ends, 25 weekends and 129 days at the end of which to take stock. Reviewing every measure 129 times will be inefficient. There will be behaviours and targets that will lend themselves to measurement at different frequency. 5 values against which you performance will be measured? At the end of each day pick out those which your behaviour exemplified that day and those you fell behind on – review why and plan how you will do things differently. Check back against this. At the end of the week, evaluate which of the five values you cannot show exemplar (or any) performance against. Plan how to incorporate behaviours that will show this over the next week.

    Based on your performance segments, recalibrate. If you are easily exceeding your goals, raise the benchmark. If you are continually falling short, lower it. No one succeeds ultimately without success along the way.

    14. Maximise efficiency, productivity and effectiveness

    Everybody starts with the same amount of time – it is up to you to change the balance in your favour if you wish to excel. Efficiency, productivity and effectiveness are your tools to do this.

    Many of us start with the goal of 'working smarter' rather than 'working harder.' This is the beginning of improving our efficiency, productivity and effectiveness. As we recalibrate and set the bar for business success higher, we discover that those we calibrate against are positioned better on the working smarter axis. Our parity or excellence on those three dimensions becomes critical to our ability to exceed others performance. Otherwise we concede ground on our most limited resource – time.

    Maximising productivity also means looking for more opportunities to get things done. Success requires working on both the critical and the important. It is wonderful when those combine, but most often it is the non-critical important tasks that do not get done. These are often limitless: they are the personal development steps that build our skills to enable our excellence, they are the administration tasks that ultimately trip us up when we fail to get them done.

    We can’t do everything. Prioritising what is essential and what is important is critical. Too often we end up using prioritisation as an excuse for the things we don’t get to. Real prioritisation requires thought, honesty and trade-offs.

    Further, you will be forced to limit your time. Relationships, family, health  – and just taking a break / time to recover – all require time. While business success demands obsession and imbalance, efficiency, productivity and effectiveness help limit the impact. Further, if demands outside work require you to calibrate your excellence at a lower level, your efficiency, productivity and effectiveness can allow you to calibrate at a higher level than you otherwise might have.

    15. Have a can-do attitude and be a leader

    Success is seldom achieved by finding reasons things can't work. Not only this, but most people are full of these reasons – and the world will throw many more at you.

    By owning an outcome and taking on the attitude, 'There must be a way to achieve this,' you differentiate yourself from most people at the start. You also become a pleasure to work with – teams and leaders will give you the opportunities to excel.

    If you are not a leader by title, be one without a title. That is not to say seek an opportunity to boss people around. True leadership gets the best out of those around you. It means asking questions, supporting others and setting an example. It is impossible to achieve business excellence without being a leader. There are many and varied recipes as evidenced by the success of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Jeff Immelt. To be sure, their styles work in the context of their environments. Your leadership style must suit yours.

    If you are concerned about your ability to lead, realise that leadership is a requirement – even if as a member of a team. The concept of “leading from behind” refers to the practice of influence – with or without authority. It is a skill that everybody who wishes to be successful must build – whether or not you are aiming for a leadership title.


    I believe that most of those chasing some nebulous goal of being successful fail to ask or answer questions related to these fifteen factors. Charitably, they do this because they do not know how to systematically approach excellence. More harshly, they do this because it is more pleasant and less uncomfortable to dream of excellence than to plan for it and set out on a determined path to achieve it.

    Following the above will not guarantee a successful business career – but it will guarantee more success than merely dreaming.

    What is your experience? I look forward to your feedback – please comment, like and share!

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