Pushing through the performance limits

A FEW years ago, I found myself, to my total surprise, in the lead of a windsurfing race. Never before had I been in such a position, and I certainly had no idea how I got there. It felt foreign, weird, and uncomfortable.

I was used to following the good guys, not being one. What do you think happened? Yep. At the next mark, sure enough, I fell off, and let one of the good guys take the lead. I came third. Much better.

When you’re out of your comfort zone, one of two things can happen – you crash, burn or shrink back to where it’s comfortable, or you “feel the fear and do it anyway”. In other words, you grow your comfort zone.

This concept doesn’t just apply to sport, but in business as well. Promotions, new hires, new projects, attempted cultural changes, mergers – the list is long. When faced with something new, individuals and organisations alike are faced with which option to take. Been there before?

In their book, The Complete Guide To Coaching At Work, Perry Zeus and Dr Suzanne Skiffington suggest about 40 per cent of newly-appointed leaders prove to be disappointing, are terminated or leave the job voluntarily within 12 to 18 months of being appointed. Factors such as lack of clarity, over-reliance on existing skills and failure to build key partnerships are cited.

If you want to go places, or you want your people to go places, at some point you and they will inevitably be face-to-face with the border of the comfort zone. That’s when you’re faced with taking option one or two mentioned above.

So how can you ensure that you take option two, and grow into the challenge you face?

Most of the clients I work with are ambitious leaders who are facing their next big career or business challenge. They include executives, managers and entrepreneurs – in all cases they are motivated to achieve more. The outstanding success stories, those who quickly expand their comfort zones and overcome the obstacles, have the following three things in common:

p They have a clear picture of what success looks like to them, and have goals in place to measure their progress. Dave (not his real name) had been promoted from manager to director of customer services because of the value he’d generated to the company through his operational management prowess. He’d been aiming for the director’s role for some time, but after the celebrations were over, he went flat. Success to him had been the promotion. Now that he’d made it, he didn’t know what his next agenda was.

Many people get to a point where their confidence and motivation wanes, usually after an arduous climb to a long-desired goal. (More people die coming down Mount Everest than going up). There’s also a danger of being overwhelmed by the atmosphere at the new level, because no time has been spent on thinking about what it’s going to take to succeed at that level. What’s needed is regular time out to define what long-term success looks like, and to develop the behaviours, thinking and skills that will be required to operate successfully at the next level.

p They have a clear map of the territory that they’re working in. People often falter because they’ve failed to assimilate the larger organisational agenda and nuances into their own reality map. Newly-hired executives and managers really fit this mould well. For example, a client of mine was hired as the general manager of a professional services firm. While she had the talent to bring in new business and run the operations, she failed to develop relationships with the people who mattered within the company. Before her time, there had been a strong bond between her direct reports and their previous boss, who was now the CEO. Failing to realise the strength of this existing relationship, she found it difficult to break the ice and lead her team. In our work together, we developed strategies together to explore the dynamics of the relationships and to help her become more effective, and satisfied, in her work.

p They have a clear understanding of their capabilities, and their limitations. People who successfully deal with unfamiliar situations take stock of their resources. Most importantly, they’ll know where their limitations lie and have a plan to deal with them. An aspiring partner of an accounting firm wanted to achieve his goal within 12 months. Part of his plan was to interview all existing partners to find out what it took to become one himself. He also asked for feedback on his strengths and areas for improvement. Armed with this knowledge, he developed an action plan that capitalised on his strengths and bolstered his limitations through further training, reading and experience. He made partner within nine months.

By having a picture of where you want to get to, a clear map of the territory, and an understanding of your resources and limitations, you can face the unfamiliar with certainty. And stay the course.

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