Permission to excel: when does it work?

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Richard Davis, CEO of US Bank spoke to a group of us the other week about leadership and giving people permission to excel, whether they are senior executives or client-facing customer representatives. It was during the launch of a new book Awaken, align, accelerate: A guide to great leadership. Richard is an executive who has thought deeply about how we elicit great performance in others. He shared the story of Roger Bannister, first man to break the four-minute mile.

Prior to Roger’s 1954 performance, it was just taken for granted that running a mile in under four minutes was impossible. When Roger broke the record and was told of the news, his first reaction was what many of us might have had: the clock must be wrong! Well it wasn’t and Roger’s achievement will be forever in the record books as a result.

Just as impressive, however, were the events of the coming year. Davis reminds us that same record was to be broken around the world 288 times during the following year. This was not because they suddenly trained like Roger; it was because they now believed a new level of performance was possible.

For Davis the implication is that people just don’t know the upper limits of what they are capable of; the leader’s role is to help employees find that upper limit.

But when does this idea of ‘permission to excel’ work and when is it just words?

For those who witnessed or learned of Banister’s accomplishment, it was a paradigm shift. Psychologist Robert Kegan has a wonderful phrase to tell us what was really going on:

“There are assumptions you hold, and assumptions that hold you.”

For Davis, it must have been less of a paradigm shift and more of establishing the right type of awareness, alignment and acceleration amongst his team.

So why aren’t more leaders like Richard Davis?

1. Emotionally loaded expectations that are more positive than negative. Ask yourself honestly if you have not only provided permission to excel, but also done your part to eliminate fear of failure. I once observed a manager (and he was a pointy headed Dilbert type) tell his team, “You are all empowered now. But you better not make any mistakes!” His own fear of failure overshadowed any other message he hoped to convey, so you can imagine how little empowerment really existed in that work unit.

Think of it as an equation where permission to excel is the numerator, fear of failure is the denominator and the result is emotional impact on performance. Fear of failure (FoF) diminishes permission to excel. A little FoF stimulates arousal and awareness (take this project seriously), but as FoF increases it begins to overshadow those permission to excel (PTE) messages. If your message is primarily focused on the consequences of failure, the emotional impact will be to minimize risk taking and to perform just well enough, not to excel.

2. Clear, aligned strategy. Is the strategy well understood? Are the supporting tactics clear? It’s one thing to set high expectations with specific and clear direction, it’s another to have high expectations with vague or ambiguous strategy. Do you want to acquire more clients of any type, or can you specify that you want more clients who fit certain profiles that match your business goals?

Are your strategies and goals aligned or do they breed like rabbits? Every complex business pursues a range of strategies; the best businesses make sure these strategies are aligned and deploy resources accordingly.

3. Enabling organizational systems. Do the systems (including IT systems, organization and operations design, rules and escalation procedures, and allocation of resources) enable performance more than they inhibit performance? It’s easy to find out: Just ask people on the line what drives they crazy about the way work gets done or doesn’t get done.

If you lead a business, think about the last time you gave your team or an employee permission to excel. Now take a good look in the mirror…

• What PTE/FoF ratio might have existed in their minds as you spoke?
• Was the strategic objective as clear as it was to those who now knew what Roger Banister could accomplish?
• Which organizational systems did they believe could help them excel and which did they believe were keeping them from setting a new performance record?

Permission to excel may be the tip of the spear, but a lot of thrust needs to go behind it if you are to puncture current levels of performance!

BestCustomerConnection, by Marc Sokol

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