Performance matters! The stock market pays for business performance, and each of us is paid for our personal performance. As learning professionals, our efforts are aimed directly at helping others grow and perform at their best, yet the systems we use to
by Site Staff
December 28, 2005
Performance matters! The stock market pays for business performance, and each of us is paid for our personal performance. As learning professionals, our efforts are aimed directly at helping others grow and perform at their best, yet the systems we use to measure and predict human performance are often primitive.
I recently heard a story on National Public Radio about the history of horse racing that caused me to consider how we might advance our understanding of human performance. When Frank Brunell first published his “Daily Racing Form” 100 years ago, it revolutionized horse racing. Brunell had been influenced by a gambler of mythic proportions named Pittsburgh Phil who “kept book” on the ponies with a precise yet elegant set of data sheets that captured pithy details regarding the past performances of the horses in a race. It was said that Phil consistently crushed his gambling competition through the skillful use of his racing forms. When Phil died at the untimely age of 43, he had amassed a fortune from his betting success, and Brunell had started an industry and an institution.
When I heard this story, I became curious about what a “Daily Racing Form” looks like. As it turns out, most of it consists of hieroglyphics, decipherable only by a true racing enthusiast. But some of it is instructive—even to the uninitiated like me. For each horse, it shows data on items such as finishes in recent races, equipment worn, medications taken, workout history, jockey and trainer information. But by far the most interesting data is a set of cryptic performance notes that describe specific race performance patterns, such as lacked late response, wore down foe, faded after half, came out of lane and came up empty.
Having been involved in many executive succession-planning meetings in several different companies, I could not help but think about how useful it would be if we had a more consistent and descriptive lexicon for characterizing the performance of our senior leaders. Sadly, I often devolve to statements such as “He’s a really good guy.” I could borrow better language from the track. “He makes his move early in the race and then sustains his pace with a focus on the rail.” “She often bumps others and causes race disturbances.” “He runs for the ribbon with all his heart and soul.” “She’s a trainer’s dream.”
A more human example of the thoughtful analysis of human performers was presented in Michael Lewis’s best-seller “Moneyball.” Lewis describes how using a combination of causal analysis statistics and past performance data allowed Billy Beane to build a remarkably successful baseball team.
Why is it that we are better informed about the past performance of horses and use more precisely descriptive language when characterizing the performance of baseball players than when dealing with those upon whom we are betting the future of our organizations?
Past performance is only one indicator of future performance. The best methods for dealing with it are hinted at in Dick Bolles’ book “What Color Is Your Parachute?” However, I must admit that I find his approach overwhelming and highly subjective. A more powerful and objective approach is Arthur Miller’s trademarked “System For Identifying Motivated Behavior,” described in his book, “The Power of Uniqueness.” Miller’s approach is to identify achievement patterns that evince themselves from critical achievement incidents in one’s personal history. This is much stronger than the use of personality-type indicators that say nothing about performance. I see some value in assessment center processes, but am not convinced that this approach distinguishes sufficiently between one’s ability to respond to a short-term role-play situation and one’s capacity to sustain performance over a longer period while dealing with the exigencies of real life.
As business people, we must make bets on the talent of our people every day. And as learning professionals, we must decide how unique individuals can best learn what they need to do to perform at even higher levels of performance. Unfortunately, we often do so with approaches that are at best relics of the past and at worst may be significantly erroneous and biased. What I’m looking for is a Daily Racing Form that will allow me and the business leaders I work with to place our bets with confidence.
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company, and has held numerous international leadership roles with IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and Motorola. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.