A few weeks ago I got to spend time with a friend of mine who amazes me at his job. He is having success in a place where most who do the same job are really struggling but somehow he is having tremendous success.
I got to watch him work and I was almost distraught because he was so good at the same job I do. It was like he was made to do the job. It was so natural for him, it was almost like he wasn't working. He was simply being himself and it draws people in. I thought, "That's it, I hate him." But then I get drawn back in!
I couldn't help myself, it's just who he is that everyone wants to be near what he's doing. The more I watched him I started to think about his story. It's a story most of us would never want to live. He's on record for being the youngest person in a state to attempt suicide. He doesn't know his father. He had to grow up quickly to be the man in his house. He was forced into the adult world a lot quicker than the rest of us.
Then it hit me, he's the outlier. As Malcolm Gladwell defined in his book Outliers, an outlier is the following:
Men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary
But as Gladwell points out in his book there is no such thing as self-made man or woman. There are defining moments, things that happen in life that shape these people, which make them who they are. And this is true for my friend. A bad day for anyone of us is not that a bad day for him. He's seen BAD days. I realized every time I'm with him he has a different view of the day than others. And because of that worldview he's dominating non-profit ministry work. He's simply infectious for people to be around.
So in our organizations we see someone like my friend and we put him on the fast track to promotion. "He's figured it out and we are sure he can teach everyone else to get the same results. He knows the magic equation to success" But the sad reality is this often more harmful to the organization than helpful.
I would compare it to if the Chicago Bulls had looked at Michael Jordan in his prime and said, "Michael, you are significantly better than everyone else, we think you should start thinking about being the head coach." What if the Miami heat promoted LeBron James as the head coach tomorrow? How would Miami do the rest of the season. Wouldn't LeBron get frustrated with his former teammates because they can't replace his performance?
But this is what we do all the time in our organizations. We take the best players and promote them to be the best managers.
Here's three mistakes an organization makes when it promotes outliers.
1. Organizations love results instead of asking why - We can fall in love with an outliers performance and miss the "why" behind how they do it. We don't want to stop and ask the question, "Why are they so productive?" This would require us to look past simply the work being done. We would have to look into their past and see what has caused them to have a high level of success. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in David and Goliath, these people will come from more difficult backgrounds than we would think.
2. Great players don't always make great coaches - As mentioned above, an outlier can't offer the life changing experiences they have in their past with those they are trying to build up. An outlier can't go back in time and change someones circumstances...where they grew up, what kind of family they had, the city they lived in, the jobs they had, etc.... This is why we often see great players struggle as coaches and why outliers struggle to become managers because their experience is non-transferable.
3. Morale takes a beating - When an organization promotes an outlier it silently says to everyone, "This is the bar, you need to perform like him/her." Not so long after a promotion of an outlier normal employes lose their jobs by feeling like they can't live up to the outlier or they are let go because their performance doesn't meet the silent expectation. The organization will then begin to go through a lot of people and the promoted outlier can't figure out how to keep good people. The organization will cry it has a hiring problem, they simply aren't hiring the "right" type of person so they will reach to identify matching "personality traits" of the outliers in the organization hoping to find more of the same people. But a personality test isn't able to find the matching defining moments in these outliers' life that has shaped them to be.
So what is an organization to do? An organization struggling with a revolving door doesn't have a talent shortage or not enough "right" personalities, instead they have a training issue. Often, organizations will lean on outliers to even write their training. Normal employees, who may be highly faithful people will always feel overwhelmed. Not because they lack the ability, but because their life hasn't had the same forming experiences the outlier has had. Training on the how is helpful, but training on the why is better. Organizations will lose less people when they begin to ask a hard question about all their training materials and that question is this:
"Why has this worked?"
A large, historic organization doesn't want to go back to the drawing board on everything when it comes to material but it is necessary to stop the hiring carousal. And it might not require going back to a beginning but it could start now. Have those writing training materials identify the "why something works" and share that. This enables the normal person a place to start. To mix their life experiences and personality with the why and find their own way.
The "why" is an enabler, defining the "how" is a road block.
Okay, now it's your turn. How do you see this happening in organizations and what would you do about it? Please leave a comment below!