As managers and executives we are trained to identify, analyze and solve problems. How can we improve the revenue of our struggling stores? What’s the best way to make our slowest manufacturing line more efficient? How can we better train our lowest-performing employees?
It’s a mistake, however, to get so caught up in problem solving that we miss learning from the stars. Studying the strongest talent, best-performing locations and most efficient stretches of the production line offers important lessons. Spotting your stars, studying what they do and then helping the rest of the organization copy their method will get you much better results much faster than trying to lift up those at the bottom. Managers need to find these bright lights and study what they do in person.
Leading companies typically do three things.
1. Analyze data to find the stars and better understand them.
Companies that do this effectively start by analyzing their performance data. Further analytics may then reveal more about the practices of these elite performers. For example, when a lubricants manufacturer recently evaluated its account managers, it dug into data on how they spend their time. That analysis showed that the standard practice across all account managers was to do three to four in-person visits with customers each month. The stars, however, behaved differently. They also interacted with clients, but of every four contacts only one was in person. The other three were over the phone. These star account managers would visit new customers every week for the first two months, but once the account was established, they scaled back, freeing up time to build new business and making it possible to manage more accounts overall.
2. Spend time with stars and observe what they do.
Top performers can’t always articulate what they do differently, but their actions show it quite clearly. Managers who take the time to go out and observe the behavior of their best people find it helps them understand how employees can do better.
Take the example of a chain of gas stations. When executives did their performance analysis they found that one gas station’s results were well above average—its store revenue was 30% above average. When asked what she did differently, the franchise owner cited some good programs, including transportation for hourly workers to their shifts. But it wasn’t until executives went to visit her in person that they began to pick up on other critical details.
The average amount of fuel purchased at her stations was quite a bit higher than others in the chain. Executives noticed that her attendants asked customers “Would you like a full tank?” rather than the more typical “How much do you want?” In the adjoining convenience store, the manager steered her staff to upsell customers by offering something weather-appropriate—on a hot day, iced coffee, on a cool day, food. She naturally tended to stand behind her employees and matter-of-factly coach them in the moment.
3. Use your stars to spread the word.
Once a manager knows what’s making the difference, it might be tempting to write that up, create a manual and then push that out through the company. This won’t be any better read than any other directive from headquarters, however. What does work is plucking out a few of your stars and then shipping them across the organization to tell their own story. Being told by a peer what works and how to give it a try gets a much better reception than a new rule handed down from on high.
One of the gas station chain’s managers tested the approaches taken by the most effective station managers for three weeks. Sales of some of the items at his store increased by five times, and fuel sales rose 5%, a significant bump. He quickly became one of the most effective ambassadors for these practices to his peer group. And hearing his experience directly from him, other managers were willing to try as well.
There are also lessons to learn outside of your company. Change comes from the front line, and alert consumers can learn a lot just going about their everyday business. Executives at the gas station chain began to intentionally visit rivals when filling their own tank, paying especially close attention to things that customers have told them is important, like bathroom cleanliness.
While it’s important to capture these best practices, flexibility is also needed. What works for one person might not for another, so it’s helpful to offer options and to support staff exploring what works for them, and probably making some mistakes along the way.
As more companies adopt Agile ways of working, it is increasingly important for managers to develop their ability to spot their bright stars and to then keep an eye on them, learn from them and help them spread their influence. Focusing on the top 20% and seeing what they do differently will lift the performance of the remaining 80% more effectively and faster than focusing on the bottom 20% ever could.
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