The Care and Feeding of Exceptional Performers - The CEO Magazine

Ordinary just won’t work anymore. Organizations will increasingly depend on cutting-edge solutions to never-before-seen problems and clever ideas for those recurring headaches that have always plagued us. Research indicates that a handful of star performers create the vast majority of valuable ideas for their organizations.

Leaders who choose to lead a team of virtuosos need to understand that these clever—often brilliant—individuals offer more, so they expect more in return. They have high standards for themselves, so it makes sense that they will hold their places of employment to equally high standards. They want to work with other stars in a culture that fosters their growth, formulates a clear strategy for their success, and then creates the day-to-day processes that allow them to succeed. It all starts with a commitment to excellence.


Bureaucracy stands at cross purposes with discipline, which in turn compromises excellence and an action orientation. Many companies build the bureaucratic rules to justify the existence of those who influence rule-making and to manage the small percentage of people who simply can’t or won’t do their jobs. When you tie a culture of discipline to a commitment to attract and retain the best and brightest in your industry, a magical alchemy of action and results occurs.

But discipline by itself won’t produce excellence. Numerous organizations throughout history have exhibited tremendous discipline as they marched in lockstep precision to ruin. You need a system of discipline—a quality and consistency orientation—not philosophy. That means people understand that implementation of the strategy holds the key to everyone’s success and that interdependence coexists symbiotically with rugged self-reliance. They understand the structure for getting work done—excellently. Excellence starts with the right people.         


Most companies continue to struggle in their attempts to identify and develop top performers. They eagerly pay top dollar for the talent they want instead of getting top talent for the dollars they pay.

First, start with outstanding talent, and make no exceptions, even if you’re in pain. The best of the best expect to work with other superior performers.

Second, when you establish an expectation of excellence, excellence becomes self-perpetuating. Each generation of new managers understands what top talent looks like, so hiring, development, and retention improve. Tie talent decisions to clear goals, and you have a success formula.

Third, there’s no substitute for raw talent, but taken singly, it doesn’t offer much. You must also assess the person’s ethics and commitment to developing others. When talent, character, and behavior come together, decision makers can rest assured that they will receive the top talent for the dollars they pay.

A Culture of Change and Learning

Corporate culture—the pattern of shared assumptions that the group has adopted and adapted over a period of time—develops in much the same way as legends and traditions do. Organizations learn as they solve their problems and adapt to the world around them. When something works well over a period of time, and leaders consider it valid, members of the organization begin to teach the behavior or idea to new people. Through this process, new members find out what those around them perceive, think, and feel about issues that touch the organization. This awareness allows them to set the direction for the company—consistently and adeptly.


There are two kinds of organizations: those with a strong strategy and culture of change and those going out of business. In other words, what got you here won’t necessarily get you to the next level. The Pony Express didn’t become the railroad, and the railroad didn’t become the airlines. Vanguards in their days, at one time, both the railroad and airline industries thrived. Today, however, both industries suffer from decades of bad management.

Unlike the leaders in these two industries, you will need to excel at reading the tea leaves. What opportunities and threats loom on your horizon? How can you leverage your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses to ready yourself for them.


Exceptional organizations serve as magnets to virtuosos who, by their very nature, require superior performance of themselves and those with whom they associate. They want to feel empowered to make decisions to improve both the organization and their own lives, and they want to align their excellence with an employer that distinguishes itself through excellence. Exceptional people crave an action-oriented culture that responds to change and regularly reinvents itself. In short, they want to work for companies that strive to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully—both today and tomorrow.



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