This article first appeared in Issue #29 of the Australian Business Solutions Magazine.

The journey from being a sound and solid business to an elite level of performance will only happen when an organisation has the motivation to break through the comfort zone by challenging its capable managers to become elite leaders.

What is the difference? Capable managers focus on the mechanics of the business almost exclusively. By this I mean that they develop and manage solid strategies. They have sensible and achievable KPIs, and providing there are not extenuating circumstances, deliver a healthy bottom line.

Some teams who have healthy mechanics in their business can be seduced into labelling this ‘best practice’ or ‘high performance’. We conduct about 20 per cent of our business in elite sport and this scenario would be a little like winning more games than you lose and laying claim to being high performing.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins says, “Being good is the enemy of being great”.

Let us consider where elite leadership might take us and how.

Elite leaders have a balance in their focus between what we have titled the MECHANICS of the business and the DYNAMICS of the business. Put simply, we would define dynamics as the mood, vibe, values or culture of the business.

In particular, in tough times the elite leader would not be distracted into just fiddling with the mechanics, for example, cost-cutting exercises and reducing staff numbers; what I might term ‘playing around at the edges’. He would focus more aggressively on the dynamics (behaviour) that are occurring within the team at that time. The reason why the focus on behaviour (culture) is important, is that a mediocre performer (team or individual) in good times will be more likely to become a poor performer in tough times.

Elite leaders, in the first instance, create clarity in organisations. People are clear about the purpose of the organisation and every person knows and believes in the value of their individual role. I recall reading an article about President John F. Kennedy, on a tour of NASA, stopping to ask a cleaner what his job was. The cleaner replied, “I help put people on the moon”. In organisations where people feel engaged, they talk more about what they are responsible for and less about “this is just my job”.

Creating clarity also means every person is clear about what the organisation values in terms of behaviour (particularly around what is unacceptable to us). The extent to which these behaviours are congruent is the realm of elite leadership. If the behaviours have no real meaning and are not considered relevant to elite performance then tear down the signs. I saw this summarised many years ago when I attended a local football club. They had their values statement on the wall and it said in bold and brave letters: “ONE in, ALL in”. However, someone else had added under the statement: “Until the s@#% hits the fan and then it is every man for himself”.

Imagine if an organisation let individuals write what they thought were the ‘real’ values and accepted behaviours of the organisation on the wall. In an elite leadership environment, most staff would agree that what is said is done. That is the ultimate test.

So, how do we go from a meaningless sign on a wall to a behavioural framework that drives performance? In a word: relationships. An elite leader places high value on all staff having strong, professional relationships with stakeholders that affect their performance. The reasoning is that the combination of a clear behavioural framework and a strong professional relationship enables people to have the more difficult or genuine conversations around performance. The team (and the individuals within) develops a capacity to self manage.

Case study

We are working with a manufacturing group whose production staff have basic competencies from a technical viewpoint, but historically have had no ‘soft’ skills training. The owner/leader wanted to move from comfortable to elite. His first step was to engage the staff in some genuine conversations about how they saw the business. He asked them to imagine if their house was mortgaged to the business, what would they change? This created the right context for the conversations to happen.

He started with the question: How would we describe our team now? (two or three descriptive words, considering both the internal and external view). This question raised some concerns that the staff had seen around complacency and mediocrity.

The next question he asked the staff to consider was: Is there a behaviour we accept in the team that we know we shouldn’t?

This question helped the staff to make the link between the words used to describe the team and the underlying behaviour which created this perception. Behaviours which were identified by the group included:

  • Turning a blind eye to faults
  • Addressing issues/frustrations inappropriately (for example, aggression).

This enabled the group to focus efforts on eradicating some of the counter-productive behaviour of the team and increase their sense of ownership.

The leader/owner then asked the staff: How would you describe me as a leader and is there any behaviour I exhibit that negatively affects our performance? You can see that this part of the exercise tested the relationship he shares with his staff. If there is little or no trust then he would have received poor quality feedback (even dishonest). However, the team gave him two or three areas to work on as their leader – he did – and they appreciated his efforts.

  • How would your staff describe you as a leader?
  • Would you want to know?

The organisation has continued to review openly and some of the changes that have been observed include:

A preparedness from staff to suggest a better way. Workers used to have an attitude that you pay for our body not our mind.

Honesty around faults and performance. Previously poor workmanship would have been covered up and the faulty product sent out. Naturally enough, having all staff looking out for faults has had a significant impact on the number of faulty items being returned.

Improved customer service and relationships. Simply a flow on from having greater attention to detail. Customers now have a greater level of trust in the company.

Increased ability to challenge each other about the quality of work produced. In the past, workplace issues were handled via a pecking order. There tended to be either a fight or flight response to conflict. This staff group now have a commitment to resolving issues without bullying.

Importantly, the bottom line has also improved!

Some people try to over intellectualise elite leadership. In the end, it is still about galvanising and empowering people and action. Reading the book on leadership unfortunately does not make you a leader. You are required to move from the land of knowing something to the land of doing something!

Ray McLean

Ray McLean

Ray founded Leading Teams in 1992 after working as a leadership officer with the Air Force. He has published two books, ‘Any Given Team’ and ‘Team Work’. Ray is based in Geelong.
Learn more about Ray.