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Six Ways Leaders Can Fuel Excellence at Anything

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In August, I posted a blog titled "Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything" on the Harvard Business Review. Over the subsequent three months it has become one of the site's most widely read blogs ever.

The notion that we can be excellent at anything prompted passionate debate. On the one hand, it's empowering and inspiring to believe that excellence is within our reach in any area to which we devote ourselves with sufficient diligence--something the researcher Anders Ericsson calls "deliberate practice."

Just think of how many movies--often based on true stories--tell the story of inspiring teachers, coaches, and mentors helping undervalued kids become extraordinary performers: The Blind Side, Stand and Deliver, Lean On Me, Mr. Holland's Opus, The Bad News Bears, and Dangerous Minds, among many others.

At the same time, it's daunting to consider that when we ourselves fall short of excellence, it's not that we lack talent but rather we haven't put in the right kind of effort.

There is precious little scientific evidence to suggest that genes are our destiny--and more and more evidence of neuroplasticity--the capacity to influence the way our genes express themselves. So what, then, can leaders do to most effectively inspire and nurture excellence in those they lead? Here are six keys:

  1. Ban words like "talented," "gifted," and "special" from your vocabulary. Well meaning as these words may be, they tend to give people credit for something they did nothing to earn, while also suggesting that others don't have equal potential. Consider replacing these words with ones like "effective," "determined," "accomplished," "skilled," "persevering," and "masterful," all of which give due credit to effort.
  2. Regularly, genuinely, and specifically acknowledge and appreciate people's successes. Believe deeply in their potential, enthusiastically encourage their passions, and don't be overly fazed by their failures. There may be nothing more motivating to the people you lead than to notice what they're doing well, and to express your appreciation with detail and specificity. Likewise, there may be no single more powerful act than to handwrite and mail someone a personal note of appreciation.
  3. Provide constant feedback. Annual or semi-annual reviews are vastly insufficient and often worthless. Most people don't improve their skills over time, in large part because they don't get consistent, specific feedback. That's different than judgment or criticism. As often as possible, resist pointing out people's deficits, and focus instead on where you can help them improve or take it to the next level in any given area.
  4. Create and protect periods of uninterrupted focus. Don't demand instant responses from your people all day long. Interruptions fracture their attention, and absorbed focus is a prerequisite to high quality work, especially on the most challenging tasks. Stop measuring your people by how many hours they work, and assess them instead based on the value they produce.
  5. Encourage and model intermittent renewal throughout the day. Great performers, the research shows, work intensely for periods no longer than 90 minutes and then stop to recover and refuel. Create a "renewal room" so people have a place to truly chill out. Nothing better fuels productivity in the afternoons than a 20-30 minute nap between 12 and 2 p.m, and encouraging people to exercise at midday runs a close second.
  6. Tie the pursuit of excellence to a larger mission. Excellence requires enormous effort. You need to give your people a compelling reason to push beyond their comfort zones. What most of us hunger for is evidence that what we're doing truly matter and serves something beyond the bottom line. CEOs such as Alan Mullally at Ford, John Chambers at Cisco, and Steve Jobs at Apple have done a great job rallying their people around a higher mission. Start by defining what you truly stand for, share with others what gets you up in the morning as often as you can, and encourage people to go through the same exercise for themselves.

How well are you managing the needs of those you lead? Take The Energy Audit for Leaders and find out!