Tag Archives: learning

The downside of excellence

High performing leaders can undermine themselves by being afraid of showing their weaknesses.

Many smart professionals don’t do as well as expected and plateau in their careers because they get anxious about their performance which impedes their progress.

That’s according to Thomas J & Sarah DeLong in an article called “The Paradox of Excellence”  (HBR of June 2011). The Harvard professor and his psychiatrist daughter say many high performers would rather do the wrong things well than do the right things badly. Because they are used to success they may shy away from really testing opportunities because they carry risk or require new skills and would rather preserve their image.

High achievers are often independent-minded and don’t easily ask for help and people may tell them what they think they want to hear anyway. So the trick is to have a good support network that will give you honest and constructive feedback.

We know leaders often move on before they experience failure so are not prepared for it and don’t  learn from it –  cynics might say they move on before they are found out. The DeLongs suggest that you need to  expose yourself to new learning experiences that make you feel uncertain or even incompetent and to remember these are temporary feelings and can lead to greater professional ability. That all sounds admirable but I wonder if that is really possible when share values seem to rule corporate decision-making?

They also identify behaviours that can help you succeed but also get in the way. They say classic high achievers are:

  • driven to get results – but may be so involved that they don’t let colleagues know what they are doing and think helping others is a waste of time
  • doers– they believe nobody else can do things as well as they. They make poor delegators and may micromanage
  • highly motivated – but because they take all aspects of their job seriously may not distinguish between what is urgent and what is important
  • need positive feedback – they care what others think but may obsess over criticism
  • competitive – but may be obsessed with comparisons with others leading to a sense of insufficiency
  • passionate about work – but intense highs can be followed by crippling lows
  • safe risk takers – they won’t damage the company by risky moves but may shy away from the unknown and miss opportunities
  • guilt-ridden – they are driven to produce but no matter what they accomplish may feel they aren’t doing enough
The DeLongs are describing leaders and professionals who are behaving more cautiously then they should and thereby hampering their careers. On the opposite side of the coin there are those who over-do their strengths and begin to demonstrate the dark side of their personalities, often with devastating results for themselves and people around them.
And they are not the first to suggest that leaders should show their weaknesses. Goffee and Morgan made the same point, also in HBR, in 2000 although they cautioned that leaders should do so selectively.

What kind of manager are you?

The quality of leadership and management in the UK needs to be improved says the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).

This is based on their latest research of 6,000 people who used their “comparethemanager.com” quiz which you can try here to see how you compare.

Apparently half of the UK’s managers misjudge their strengths and weaknesses with only 14% excelling in people management skills and only 8% best at managing themselves. 41% however are best at getting results and 37% at demonstrating strong leadership. So not sure how that works if 86% don’t have people management skills?

I’m also not sure how accurate these figures are if 50% of the managers misjudge their skills but the CMI says it has developed a diagnostic tool to measure this “strength-perception” gap. The CMI also says; ” … this gap appears to  comes down to a perilous combination of years of inadequate training for those in management roles and the increasing number of people who reluctantly fall into management positions.

Commenting on the findings, Ruth Spellman, chief executive of CMI, said: “We’re desperately short of good leaders in this country – just look at how many FTSE 100 companies have sourced CEOs from abroad and how many Premier League clubs have foreign managers. We’re crying out for much-needed home-grown leadership talent and it’s frustrating that employers are failing to capitalise on the dormant leadership skills that their employees don’t yet realise they have”.”

I can understand their reasoning but I’m not clear if the quiz is the tool they used as it only has 12 questions. I tried it several times and when I “faked good” I came out either like Richard Branson, Phillip Green, or Deborah Meaden. When I went for the middle answers I came out like Andrew Strauss, Alex Ferguson, or Jacqueline Gold. And when I “faked bad” I came out like Victoria Beckham, Alan Sugar, or Simon Cowell!

Six months ago I asked the question: “Have you got what it takes to be a leader?” and now the CMI is urging members to get serious about personal development suggesting they use their diagnostic quiz to help them.  I think it’s a dumbed down diagnostic but of you have nothing better to do in your coffee break…

Don’t reward failure

Alice Thomson in the Times (14/07/10): “Don’t overpay gifted teachers. Pay off the duds“, starts off well.  She says it’s not the fabric of schools, class sizes, or even “free schools”, but teachers we should worry about.

Referring to Ofsted head Zenna Atkins’ comments about useless teachers being good for children she suggests that having a series of sub-standard teachers is one reason why 20% of children leave school without any GCSE passes.

In America an economist at Stanford University studied 5,000 teachers and concluded that with good ones you got 18 month’s worth of learning in a school year but with incompetent ones only 6 months. And Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Tipping Point” concluded that children were better off in a bad school with an excellent teacher than the opposite.

She also criticises the overpaying of good teachers following revelations about a primary head earning almost £300,000 last year. I agree it does seem an obscene amount given all the other shortages and it included overtime payments. Where else would senior managers or professionals be paid overtime, even in the public sector?

But then we part company because her solution is to pay off the bad teachers – the bed blockers she calls them – with early retirement. She says it is hard to prove they are incompetent so we should bribe them to leave. Because they sap children’s talents and other teachers’ morale. This is wrong in so many ways.

First, education authorities have tried this in the past, giving early retirement to less competent teachers. That’s what saps other teachers’s morale – seeing incompetent colleagues being rewarded for failure while they struggle on.

Secondly, it’s an easy option for (now very highly paid) head teachers who should demonstrate the management and leadership skills they are being paid for and performance manage, and dismiss if necessary, poor teachers rather than give them a reference to move them on to another school.

Thirdly, what kind of message does it send to parents and children? That you can be rubbish at your job and still retire early on a good pension while they struggle to make ends meet in a recession?

Perhaps we should follow the example of other countries and set higher standards for our teachers in the first place. Outstanding organisations know that good performance starts at the recruitment stage. The government could probably do more to support schools that need to weed out incompetent teachers and heads need to earn their money as managers and leaders and deal with the problem.

Isn’t that the least that good teachers and our children deserve?

Practice makes perfect, probably

So brain training doesn’t actually make you smarter. Some of you may have seen the experiment on a BBC Science Programme  http://www.bbc.co.uk/labuk/results/braintestbritain/6_training_results.html or read about it the newspapers eg http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/7610884/Popular-brain-training-games-do-not-make-users-any-smarter.html and  http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article7103288.ece

Basically the Cambridge University study showed that practising on brain training games didn’t improve your cognitive function but only made you better at that game and that it is just as effective to spend the same amount of time surfing the internet. Nintendo, which has sold 35 million games like these, was quick to point out that they never made any claims that such games could improve cognitive function.

In the early part of the same BBC programme there was a case study of a man who, in his childhood, had half his brain effectively disconnected. His brain managed to compensate by transferring functions to the other half of the brain, a good example of the brain’s plasticity. Although an extreme example it shows that the brain is capable of developing new connections every day of our lives and every time we do something new.

So is it a waste of time practising? In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” he quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin’s research which suggests that to achieve true expertise or mastery in anything, whether to be a musician or a master criminal, you have to practise for 10,000 hours. That’s 3 hours a day, every day, for 10 years! He also believes that cultural demands can make  a difference and says Asians’ excellence in mathematics is because their culture expects and even demands it.  http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article4969415.ece

Similarly David Schenk, a writer on genetics, claims that the case for genetic predisposition is overstated and that if you practise hard enough you can even become a genius. He challenges the belief that Kenyan marathon runners have a genetic advantage and says that it is cultural with children running 8-10 kilometres a day from the age of 7. He also believes that rather than being a static blueprint DNA is open to influence by external factors and that genes can be turned on or off by environmental influences which we then pass on to our children. So David Beckham’s prowess at free kicks isn’t down to genes so much as practice and more practice.  http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article7069310.ece

Dr Yannis Pitsiladis at the University of Glasgow  has concluded after 10 years studying elite athletes – including African distance runners and Jamaican sprinters – that their success is not due to their DNA as he first thought but is: “a socio-economic phenomenon” (Sports Illustrated).

There was one positive finding from the Cambridge study in that brain training games may be useful for elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. But I think I’ll stick to learning a language and doing my Su Doku.

“There is no golden genetic windfall bestowed at birth, but constant interaction between the outside world and our DNA” says David Schenk in The Observer (2 May 2010). Promoting his book, “The genius in all of us”, he accepts that there might be genes that influence our drive and motivation but believes that they are not totally innate. and that resilience, and motivation, can appear at different stages in people’s lives.

He thinks this trait often appears in response to adversity, that some people will find it more difficult to develop intense drive than others, but that is basically a developed trait. He concludes; “Few of us know our true limits and the vast majority of us have not come close to tapping our unactualised potential”.


Updated 13 January 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12140064

This is another story about genetic influences and in particular the idea that we can no longer refer to innate talent – everything is a product of our genes and our interaction with the environment. Amongst interesting research results Carol Dweck, from Stanford University in the US, has demonstrated that students who understand intelligence is malleable rather than fixed are much more intellectually ambitious and successful.

Updated 19 April 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13128701

Another article about Carol Dweck’s research. Students who are praised for working hard rather than being smart do better!