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High performance comes naturally to bonus years’ exemplar

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday February 10, 2013

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

Some people are “early bloomers.”  Mozart and Beethoven come to mind.  Some people are “shooting stars” – like many athletes, most chess players and some business, political and military leaders – people who shine brightly in their 20s and 30s and then burn out.

Others are “late bloomers.”  They don’t find their calling or hit their stride until their 40s or 50s – and sometimes even later.  Grandma Moses started painting at age 76. James Michener wrote his first book, “Tales of the South Pacific,” when he was 40 years old!  All the rest – including “Chesapeake,” “The Caribbean” and so many other best-selling sagas – came later.

Still others are what we might call “persistent performers.” Nearly every decade of their life is marked by significant achievements – and they don’t stop when they turn 60 or 65.  They just keep on going, sometimes even to blaze a new trail.  Think of Billy Graham, Warren Buffett, Jack Welch or the late management guru, Peter Drucker.

Annapolitan Paul Elliott, in the early stage of his bonus years, is a persistent performer, having just published (with co-author Al Folsom) a new book called “Exemplary Performance: Driving Business Results by Benchmarking Your Star Performers” (Jossey-Bass, 2013).  After earning a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Illinois in 1975, Paul decided to make a career in business, where he would devote his professional life to finding ways to improve the workplace performance of individuals and the enterprises and industries that employed them.

In his early years he worked for companies like Baltimore Gas & Electric, where he helped design and evaluate training programs for employees in nuclear power operations.  He worked for General Physics Corporation, where he was director of the technology transfer division, helping global companies like General Motors transfer technology from the laboratory to the assembly line.

And then, in 1988, he joined with others to form RWD Technologies, Inc., located up the road in Columbia, Maryland.  RWD was a place where Paul and his colleagues pooled years of experience to come up with new ideas – including a “big idea” – about how to improve human performance in the workplace.  When his colleague and mentor, Dr. Joe Harless, retired some years ago, Paul acquired the intellectual property and formed Human Performance Technologies where he continued to refine and apply the “big idea” that he and his colleagues had developed over the years.

The foundation for the “big idea” was this:  Every organization – a baseball or basketball team, a business, think tank or non-profit organization – has a few “stars” who consistently produce exceptional results: scores, rebounds, sales, memberships, books, TV appearances.  Stars are easy to spot because they are energetic, engaged and productive, and their productivity is way above the average for their team, department or organization.

In many cases, they found, the high-performing stars and high-performing “star teams” generated 50 percent more sales revenue; star R&D teams brought in 50 percent more products from the lab to the market; star maintenance techs fixed machines 50 percent faster; and star software engineers sometimes wrote as much as 10 times more bug-free code as did average performers – all confirming what Henry Ford used to say, “There isn’t a person anywhere who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can.”

These findings suggested that the “knowledge-based” approach to training, where you “teach about” a job, may miss the mark.  Johan Sebastian Bach said it best, tongue-in-cheek:  “There’s nothing remarkable about [playing the organ]. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”   It is, as Bach reminds us, worth knowing “how” to do it.

This suggests a “competency-based” approach where the boss or the HR director decides what skills are needed to do the job.  She then writes the job description and delivers “skills training.”  For a long time, “competency-based” education was the new “big idea” in K-12 education and industrial training.

However, the “big idea” of Paul Elliott and his colleagues was, instead, to observe carefully and systematically the behavior of star performers, profile what they know and what they do – including knowledge, skills, attitudes and practices – and then use that profile as the “curriculum” for training all the employees in that team or department.  In other words, model the behavior of the stars.

Paul’s company packaged these new ideas and worked with clients to improve human performance in many different sectors – financial services, automotive manufacturing, chemical and petroleum processing, advertising, telecommunications, and consumer products.

In 2001, Paul sold Human Performance Technologies to Saba Software.  That’s when most people retire.  Not Paul Elliott.  Instead, he honored his non-compete and then formed Exemplary Performance, LLC, where he has continued to advance his novel ideas about performance improvement for individuals and enterprises – from AstraZeneca and Microsoft to the US Coast Guard and many in between.

Today, Paul is diving, not wading, into his bonus years.  He is not slowing down so much as he is expanding his portfolio of activities.  In addition to consulting, he is now writing books and speaking at professional events where he is an evangelist for what he calls “exemplary performance” – helping enterprises to produce more wealth and everyone he touches to develop their gifts and use them more fully regardless of age, occupation or setting.  When C.S. Lewis said, “It’s never too late to set another goal or to dream a new dream,” I think Paul Elliott was listening.  By any measure, he is a bonus years exemplar.

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