Scott Bateman: So, you think you’re a high performer?

Three people are standing on a beach watching a small yacht sail very quickly out to sea. A passer-by notices the speed at which it’s sailing and asks the three “I wonder how it’s travelling so quickly?” 

The first person says he is to credit for the yacht’s speed as he made the sails and they are perfectly engineered to catch the breeze and that’s why the yacht is moving so quickly.  

The second person argues that she is in fact to credit for the yacht’s speed as she built the hull and the lightweight design is the primary reason it moves so fast; “what good is a well-engineered sail if the hull is too heavy?”

The third comments that neither is able to take the credit as the yacht has simply caught a strong current and that’s why it’s moving so quickly.

“The current is so strong that a battleship would float at speed,” he says.

So, who is right?

I have no idea. Maybe one, maybe two of them to varying degrees, maybe all of them … and that’s the problem.

Understanding the true drivers of performance can be a tricky exercise as there are often so many moving parts that it can be challenging to work back through the chain to isolate specific moments where things change, positively or negatively, at a rate beyond that expected.

Knowing this is true then raises the question of when and how we can take credit for things going well or absolve ourselves of blame when they don’t.

Moreover, if you’re managing someone who isn’t performing, how do you know for certain that the lack of results is entirely their doing?

One of my great tutors on strategy and entrepreneurship almost beat into us the importance of identifying and working with mega trends because of how much more likely you are to succeed at your endeavours when you do.

Assuming that you have done this, the challenge that comes next is in understanding how effective (or not) any specific part of your business is when the external trend or driving force is so powerful that it’s creating momentum for your business.

Like the example at the start of this piece, it’s difficult to know how much of the yacht’s speed was simply the sea’s current carrying it in a particular direction versus the impact of the lightweight hull or well-engineered sail.

It can be hard to see a downside in your business or team when everything is firing along and it certainly doesn’t feel as good as revelling in your success when you do, but it’s important that you are able to.

I remember being in a much more junior role a number of years ago and presenting to the senior leadership team on my portfolio’s performance for the quarter.

I had led my business to a huge turn around and went in full of ego to present for a couple of hours on how well I had done.

The general manager at the time stared blankly at me through my whole presentation and when I had finished (foolishly thinking I had presented brilliantly) he sat in complete silence for quite some time before simply saying this…

“Scott, there’s no doubt you have done some good things, but there’s no point being the tallest dwarf in the room”…Talk about crushed!

I walked away shocked by his comment, with my ego battered and bruised, and it took me a good few days to get over it.

However, his comment turned out to be one of the best bits of advice I have ever been given.

What he was trying to do was help me continue to see the opportunities and set goals that would stretch me, rather than simply run through the finish line, grab a trophy and head out for drinks… so to speak.

You may have heard the line that “the problem with success is that it breeds complacency”.

This is not my line and I honestly have no idea who to credit for it, but it’s incredibly relevant, nonetheless.

The problem with having data or feedback which just outlines what we are doing well is that it allows us to start confirming our own perception of how good we are.

Much has been written about confirmation bias and it’s an important phenomenon to understand if you genuinely want to improve, as it explains our tendency to seek and accept information which confirms what we already think, and reject information that doesn’t. 

Talk to most CEOs and they will tell you that one of the biggest problems they face is people telling them what they want to hear rather than the truth, and you start to see why this would be such a significant issue when the decisions they make can affect so many people in a business.

The other problem with success is that it makes it difficult to see what’s still failing and/or why.

If four of the five parts in your business are performing so well that the performance of the fifth is being concealed, you need a mechanism for identifying that and taking action.

If the market is going crazy and growing at an incredible rate, your business’ growth must be measured against that external momentum and not just ‘year on year’ performance.

Things do change quickly nowadays, much more so than any time in the past, and your business needs a high degree of flexibility if it is to survive and thrive when they do.

If your approach is simply looking at today’s victories, you’re not set up to deal with running second or third tomorrow should it happen.

I started this piece with the example of fast-sailing yacht and the debate about what the cause was.

I think it’s a good example for highlighting that a modern business is a complex beast with many moving parts, and as such, it’s important you’re able get underneath the ‘outcome’ and understand the ’cause’ of anything you are doing well or not.

The great curse of high performance is forgetting what it took to get good at what you do and getting (positive) feedback from others which inevitably makes you complacent.

I don’t have a hard and fast solution to many of the problems I have posed here; just a set of questions I can encourage you to reflect on and consider, which I hope will help you or your teams:

  • Is there a person or company that’s quickly gaining ground, winning market share or eclipsing performance expectations? What are they doing differently to me/us? Can that be replicated or improved on?
  • Which area of our business are we successful in today that is most likely to come under threat in the next few months? Why? How do we know this? How do we prepare for it now? 
  • Does our current reporting and analysis allow us to understand performance in each and every area of our business? Can we isolate ’cause’ and ‘drivers’ or do we just get aggregate results? How do we get better depth in our understanding of our performance?
  • What was the last thing we celebrated achieving? If we could do it again, but 20 per cent better, how would we do this?

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Scott Bateman

Scott Bateman is the CEO of Kolmeo. For more information visit