by Rob Marchalonis.
One of the highlights of my career has been the opportunity to work with peak performers. To clarify, these are individuals I would categorize in the top 5% relative to their peers, based on performance. Among these people, some were exceptionally gifted, others were notably experienced, and many simply worked very hard to get amazing results. What’s always been interesting to me is that virtually everyone I’ve worked with exhibited peak performance, in at least one aspect of their personality, role, or job. I have come to believe that everyone is uniquely gifted, and the sooner you can discover and make the most of your gifts, the faster you will achieve great things. Special is the person who has been able to evolve one or combine several of their gifts, experience, or effort to achieve exceptional organization outcomes, most notably those which positively impact others.
Great business leaders pursue peak performers. My appreciation for this started early in my career, when I was hired as a manufacturing engineer at General Electric. My boss (a few levels up!) was a fast-rising performer named Jack Welch. As the youngest chairman and CEO ever selected by GE, Jack went on to lead GE for 20 years and confirm his peak performer status by growing the value of the company’s stock by 4000%. Jack Welch became well known for his somewhat controversial approach to take the top 20% of his leaders and fast-track them forward. Alternately, he would send the bottom 10% to find opportunities elsewhere. Welch rationalized that it was actually better to be honest with lower performing leaders and free them to pursue roles and employers that better matched their abilities and interests. Many who left, did indeed go on and find great success at careers that better fit their talents.
Various experts and authors have studied and written about peak performers. Bradford Smart wrote a book that highlighted GE’s hiring practices under Welch called Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching and Keeping the Best People. Topgrading emphasizes the importance of finding the ideal candidate for each position and building a talented team of “A Players”. In Good to Great, author Jim Collins famously described the importance of getting “the right people in the right seats on the bus.” Collins adds that the right people are not only self-motivated, they also more easily adapt to a fast-changing world.
Consider Google. A fascinating, recently published book called Work Rules provides insights about the hiring and workplace practices at Google, now officially known as Alphabet. The book was written by Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google who, perhaps not ironically, was recruited out of General Electric. Laszlo joined Google in 2006, two years after its public stock offering and helped lead the growth of Google’s talent pool from 6,000 to almost 60,000 employees. Their mission, “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” As you can imagine, Google is no ordinary employer, having been selected seven times by Fortune as the “Best Company to Work For” in America. According to Laszlo and per LinkedIn, Google is the most sought after and selective place to work. It receives more than 2,000,000 employment applications annually but hires only several thousand. This makes Google 25X more selective than Yale, Princeton, or Harvard!
Why be so selective? Laszlo’s experience is that employee performance does not follow a “bell curve” distribution. Rather, employees perform according to a “power law” curve where a special few employees contribute significantly more than others, and in some cases as much as 10X to 100X. Bill Gates went a step further stating, “…a great writer of software code is worth 10,000 times the price of an average writer.” With this belief, a key objective is to “stack your team” with recruiting, hiring, and workplace practices that allow you to identify, attract, and retain the very best talent for each position.
Laszlo claims that talented people are increasingly mobile, connected, and discoverable to willing employers. But have employers done their part to be sufficiently engaging, rewarding, flexible, and culturally satisfying to attract and fulfill this select group? High level talent will flow to organizations that do purposeful work, with high levels of freedom, low levels of bureaucracy, and provide commensurate rewards and satisfaction. In high-performance environments, people are motivated and behave like entrepreneurs and owners who are willing to do whatever is needed to make the organization successful.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin declared early on that his employees are “everything” and that the company was focused on attracting and leveraging technologists and business people with “exceptional talent”. In exchange, Sergey committed to “reward and treat them well”. What does this look like? First, Google hires slowly, being mindful that only 10% of their applicants at best would truly be top performers. The company claimed to spend twice as much time and effort as their peers to attract and select new employees. Second, only hire people who are “better than you”, which requires a significant degree of both selectivity and humility on the part of the hiring leader or team. Finally, Google rewards performance generously, celebrates it publicly, and grants stock to all employees making them long term “stakeholders” in the outcomes of the enterprise.
Compensation at Google. Next to recruiting, compensation issues and how to pay people fairly is reportedly where people managers at Google spend most of their time. In the early days, talented employees were known to take pay cuts, believing in the company and future rewards. Some new hires were given the choice to gain 5,000 stock options in exchange for $5,000 of salary. It apparently was a good deal, since Googlers who accepted the risk eventually returned $5,000,000 for their gamble. Today, Google still believes in paying people “unfairly”, partly by making every employee eligible for stock awards based primarily on performance. Sergey states, “We believe strongly in being generous with our greatest contributors.” Laszlo confirms, “Your best people are better than you think, and worth more than you pay them.”
How do you recruit and reward your peak performers? Do you acknowledge the difference that some individuals or work groups could contribute to your success? When you hire, how often are extraordinary candidates forced into a pay scale or compensation plan that’s based solely on an industry average or standard? Rather than offer an over-sized salary, how can you use innovative rewards and compensation strategies to more fairly or more generously compensate for results, and therefore entice exceptional talent? Are you willing and able to explore compensation options that might require slightly more innovation and planning, or are you restricted to compensation constraints that are simply easy to administer?
If you wanted to recruit and reward for peak performance, how might you create a plan to do this effectively and efficiently? Consider first, what performance results contribute the most value to the organization. Next, identify which individuals or work groups most impact specific contributing results. Formulate simple ways to share a portion of these results or improvements with the primary contributors. Communicate upfront how you appreciate, acknowledge, and reward results in your organization, and watch how peak performance is unleashed among your employees, especially your high potential new recruits.