Exceptional Performance

In an old interview at Tesla, Elon Musk shared some insights into his highering practices:

“There’s no need even to have a college degree at all or even high school. I mean if someone graduated from a great university, that maybe an indication that they will be capable of great things, but it is not necessarily the case… we are looking just for evidence of exceptional ability, and if there’s a track record of exceptional achievement then it’s likely that that will continue into the future.”

Elon Musk

So, what is exceptional?

Exceptional:
1, Forming an exception; not ordinary; uncommon; rare
2, Better than the average; superior due to exception or rarity.

Wiktionary

When searching for ‘Exceptional performance’, I found this interesting appraisal quote from the University of California, Davis’s HR pages:

“Exceptional Performance: Performance consistently or far exceeded expectations.” UC Davis

And ability and achievement?

Ability: possession of the means or skill to do something.

Oxford Languages

Achievement: A thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.

Oxford Languages

Can you define what exceptional ability and achievement look like in your field? If not, the Global skills and competency framework for the digital world (SFIA) is a good place to start.

10 Actions For New Managers

My team grew in February, and three new members became line managers for the first time. As a newly graduated MBA with over ten years of line management experience, I wanted to give them some immediate actions to help them in their first six to 12 months. I have previously written about my approach to leadership and management, but I wanted something simple and practical that would allow each person to begin developing their management style. I went through my MBA and undergraduate texts and collected together some resources, three of which I share below:

5 things new managers should focus on first‘ by Anthony K. Tjan, from the May 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review, suggests the following:

  • Establish a leadership philosophy
  • Focus on the day to day of management and leadership
  • Be clear about your communication and your top priorities
  • Set common values and common standards
  • Remember that it’s okay to be scared and vulnerable

I firmly believe in setting common values and standards and being clear about your top five priorities. Establishing a leadership philosophy, however, might be challenging while establishing yourself in a new role. The best takeaway from this list is to focus on day-to-day management and leadership, organising your resources (people and funds) to achieve your objectives. This organising can be done simply by listing your deliverables and their due dates and, working with your team to allocate tasks and monitoring them, adjusting task allocations to ensure you hit deadlines and quality expectations.

The book ‘The Making of a Manager‘ by early Facebook employee Julie Zhou has a great definition of the job of a manager; “Getting better outcomes from a group of people working together.” The book suggests a great manager is someone whose team “…consistently achieve great outcomes.” Zhoe recommends managers arrange their tasks into three buckets: 

  • Purpose (what): ensure your team knows what success looks like and cares about achieving it.
  • People (who): Ask yourself: are the team set up to succeed, have the right skills, and are motivated to do great work? Build trusting relationships, understand their strengths and weaknesses to make good decisions about allocating work, and coach individuals to do their best.
  • Process (how): set out how the team works together.

The famous productivity book ‘Getting Things Done‘ by David Allen suggests six horizons of focus to define work:

  • Ground: Calendar/Actions
  • Horizon 1: Projects
  • Horizon 2: Areas of Focus
  • Horizon 3: One-to two-year goals and objectives
  • Horizon 4: three to five-year vision
  • Horizon 5: Purpose and principles

This list presents a valuable hierarchy of activities for new managers from day one, compiling a complete inventory of actions and dates and capturing this into a shared calendar and to-do list to identify multi-task projects and assign areas of focus and accountability. Once these things are working correctly and everyone is producing consistently good work, focus can expand to thinking about annual objectives and a three-year vision to guide which work to priorities and set the direction for the team. After the first year or two, once the manager is established, experienced, and has work under control, they may prefer to take a strategic approach, start from horizon five, and work backwards. However, trying this from day one might cause missed commitments and poor outcomes.

Ten actions for new managers

I settled on the following ten actions for the new manager’s first six to 12 months. The steps start from immediate one-to-one activities and gradually move out in scope and from individuals to the team. You can quickly fix many problems by talking to your direct reports 1:1 and face to face each week and tracking the resulting agreed-upon actions in a to-do list and calendar. However, developing trusting relationships at a team level may take a long time with many shared experiences. Each step should be satisfied before moving on to the next.

  1. Have a 1:1 for 30-60 minutes every 1-2 weeks​
  2. Track all agreed-on actions using a shared to-do list​
  3. Co-create achievable quarterly and annual objectives with clear successful, strong, and exceptional performance targets​
  4. Create a detailed development plan for each role and personalise it based on the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and their long-term career goals​
  5. Cultivate psychological safety​
  6. Spend time planning as a team​
  7. Have a mixture of shared outputs and personal responsibilities​
  8. Develop a clear vision for the team supported by key performance indicators​
  9. Create weekly, quarterly, and annual cycles​
  10. Develop trusting relationships​

This list will evolve and change as these new managers develop and as new line managers join my area. I will detail some of these actions and how I teach them when they come back into my work focus, and I may justify the list and its order at some point with the detail I share with new managers on my teams. 

If you are a new manager or supporting a new manager with their first direct reports, I recommend reading ‘The making of a Manager’ and then ‘Getting Things Done’ to support this list or to develop your own.

Managing Oneself

Peter Drucker is arguably the most influential thinker on management. One of his best-known works is the 18,000-word book ‘Managing Oneself‘ published in 2008 from a 1999 Harvard Business Review article. The article now be found in HBRs ’10 must Reads: The Essentials’, the collection of the 10 most important articles published in their 100-year history. The book’s core idea is that you need to cultivate a deep self-awareness to achieve ‘true and lasting excellence.

Drucker presents a series of questions you can answer about yourself to gain the self-awareness needed to ‘build a life of excellence:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. How do I work?
  3. How do I learn?
  4. What are my values?
  5. Where do I belong?
  6. What can I contribute?

The most difficult of these questions is the first. With over 180 cognitive biases that affect our ability to process reality, such as confirmation bias where we look for evidence that justified our existing beliefs, how do you truly know what your strengths are? Drucker’s recommended method is feedback analysis; each time you make a key decision write down the outcome you expect and then return in a couple of months and compare the actual results with your expectations. By assessing patterns using this method you will be able to assess your strengths from where you can create desired outcomes. You can then spend time improving these strengths as the most effective route to high performance. Creating a series of feedback analyses can take two to three years for meaningful patterns to emerge, so what can we do immediately while collecting these experiments?

Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves-their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.

Peter Drucker

How do I perform?

My current focus is on the second and third questions of Drucker’s questions. A set of sub-questions are presented to help us get to:

  • In what ways do I work best?
  • Do I process information most effectively by reading it, or by hearing others discuss it?
  • Do I accomplish the most by working with other people, or working alone?
  • Do I perform best while making decisions, or while advising others on key matters? 
  • Do I perform best when things get stressful, or in highly predictable environments?

By answering these questions you can start to understand what kinds of productivity techniques and tools might suit you best. I know for instance that I can consume and process information through listening. I am often able to recall things I have heard better than those I have read, although this means I often have to avoid listening to things like the radio when I am driving home from work and processing the day’s information and decisions. I have set up techniques to support this including preferring listening to audiobooks over reading them or listening to the week’s economist rather than reading the paper version.  

An interesting point though is how much of overall performance is improved by foundational skills and how much is open to preference and styles? Time blocking for example, where blocks of time, usually in 30-60 minute intervals are allocated to specific tasks, is widely seen as the best method to organise a day. Many methods of note-taking from GTD to Zettelkasten, and the ‘Building a Second Brain’ method all base themselves on the premise that the brain is built to process information rather than store it. Which of these ideas are universal for improved performance that forms the starting point for developing exceptional ability?

How do I learn?

I did not enjoy school nor did I develop any good learning habits or achieve anything exceptional academically. I did however get obsessive with other pursuits such as music production, where I did much better. Drucker suggests that people that excel at learning through writing tend to do poorly at school as most classes are not set up to exploid this approach. One of the reasons I set up this blog is I have a google drive full of documents I have used to organise my thoughts and when learning something new, I usually reach for a pen to organise the idea in my own way. Drucker suggests that there are multiple ways to learn including readers, listeners, talkers, and writers and says that most of us know how we learn best but rarely act on this, and so do not reach high performance. 

As a teacher, I know there are definitely foundational skills and techniques that everyone can benefit from using more. Encoding, spaced repetition and active recall are all seen as highly effective methods of rote learning. Kolb’s cycle presents four stages of experiencial learning; planning, doing, reflecting, and learning but perhaps the most effective way we do each of these stages can vary from person to person and within different contexts. Bloom’s two sigma problem suggests that 1:1 and very small group tutoring produces results two standard deviations better than other methods and John Hattie’s invisible learning presents a meta-analysis of the meaningful research on teaching methods.

 My actions for gaining self-awareness for excellent performance

With my MBA graduation over and the immediate actions complete for my new job, it is time for me to refocus on my performance. I am working on a number of methods to improve my understanding of my strengths but what can I do to improve my ways of working and learning? 

First, I need to work on my foundation skills and update my productivity and learning systems. Then, I need to build on these foundations with more advanced personalised methods that fit the way I work and learn best. Finally, I need to use these two sets of skills on a daily basis. 

Some resources I am using:

Existential Risks

An existential risk represents a catastrophe that leads to an extinction event, society’s collapse to a pre-agricultural state, or a totalitarian regime that maintains total and lasting subjugation of the global population.

An existential risk is a risk that threatens the destruction of humanity’s longterm potential.

Toby Ord

We must be aware of the probability of such events taking steps to reduce the risk of their occurrence and avoid them. In the book ‘The Precipice‘, Toby Ord suggests that we entered a period of high risk in 1945 with the first use of the atomic bomb on humans and calculated that we have a 20% risk of total extinction 2100. Toby argues that humans need to start to take a longterm view of their decisions or risk the end of civilisation.

There are two main categories of existential risk; the first and less likely are natural disasters, including supervolcanos or asteroids. The second, more likely set of threats we have created ourselves (anthropomorphic) such as war, environmental damage, and unaligned artificial intelligence. We are currently told that climate change is the most significant risk facing civilisation, and it does have real consequences. Still, other existential threats are more likely to have catastrophic effects, and each needs attention based on its probability and impact.

RiskEstimated probability
for human extinction
before 2100
Overall probability19%
Molecular nanotechnology weapons5%
Superintelligent AI5%
All wars (including civil wars)4%
Engineered pandemic2%
Nuclear war1%
Nanotechnology accident0.5%
Natural pandemic0.05%
Nuclear terrorism0.03%
Future of Humanity Institute, 2008, taken from Wikipidia

There is a common argument about the need to look after the current population before making decisions that might reduce current growth and prosperity to provide a better future for the people that are yet to be born. There is also a strong argument that many of these risks have been inherited from previous generations. Both of these arguments are strong, particularly when you see the suffering and deprivation that many people across the world live in. However, they do not change the fact that the existential risks are real, and we have a responsibility to leave the world in a better situation than we found it.

How to reduce existential risks

Responsible and mature activism can be an important secondary activity, but there are many more impactful and pressing actions for those serious about reducing the risk of an end to humanity, such as living as sustainably as possible ourselves first. Toby Orb provides two actions people can take to lessen the probability and impact of global catastrophic risks.

  1. Your choice of career
  2. Charitable donations

There is a global mismatch of skills; this is particularly an issue in the various engineering fields. For a sustainable future, people must be working on practical solutions to existential risks. 80,000 hours provides ideas for how you can use your career to solve the human races most important problems and offers a list of jobs by problem area to apply the skill you have to the issues you feel most strongly about helping to solve. The most significant impact an individual can have on the future of human civilisation is to choose a career that reduces the risk of an existential event. 

The second most significant impact you can have on reducing existential risks is to use your disposable income to support charities or companies that are working towards reducing global catastrophic risks. Toby Ord suggests donating to charities through the Giving what you can community. I would go a step further than this and suggest that investing your savings in private companies solving these problems is the best way to support sustainable solutions. Charities are dependent on donors for their survival; however, successful enterprises, once up and running, can fund themselves through the answers they provided, making a far more sustainable future.

Existential risks are real, and we live through a period of human history where the stakes are more significant than ever. We have a responsibility to leave the world a better place than when we enter it, first through living sustainably, second through choosing a career that reduces either the likelihood or consequence of existential risks, and thirdly by investing and donating to organisations doing the same. 

We are responsible for learning about the dangers and starting an open, honest, and respectful conversation with those around us. Just don’t be an art graduate who riots at protests about climate change and then returns to your single glazed converted barn in their camper van to sit in front of a log burning fire talking about how other people are ruining the planet. We have the creativity and skills; we need each person to take real action.

Strategy vs Tactics

Strategy: a general plan to achieve one or more long-term or overall goals under conditions of uncertainty.

Wikipedia

Tactic: a conceptual action or short series of actions with the aim of achieving a short-term goal.

Wikipedia

A strategy is a general long term plan that may contain a set of goals. The strategy will incorporate multiple tactics, each designed to achieve a specific goal. Many people use the two words interchangeably, but this is not correct.

What poker can teach you about business

Saturday marked our first, and hopefully last, annual boys weekend that had to be held virtually. A group of people who mostly work in tech played poker over Zoom with real cards instead of a virtual poker table to save the £20 fee (it cost more to buy and post the cards). This was my first ever real game of poker and to say I was not a natural is an understatement.

I am a third of the way through Tony Hsieh’s book and used my first commute in 8 months to listen to more of the audio version, read my Hsieh himself. During today’s section of the book, Tony talks about rediscovering the game of Poker one sleepless night after selling LinkExchange to Microsoft by reading a community website for regular poker players. 

Tony writes that he was ‘fascinated’ by the mathematics of the game. He discovered that luck did not matter so much in the long run as there was a mathematical way to calculate the ‘pot odds’ from the ratio of people still in the bet, the number of chips in the pot and the statistical chance of winning. After noticing the similarities between what he was learning in poker and what he knew about business, Tony made a list of lessons that he could apply in his work. 

The two biggest lessons that poker taught Hsieh were 1, ‘Focus on what’s best for the long term, and 2, the most critical decision is to pick the correct market to be in.

Quote: One of the most interesting things about playing poker was learning the discipline of not confusing the right decision with the individual outcome of any single hand… Tony Hsieh

A small selection of Hsieh’s poker rules for business

  1. Evaluating market opportunities – “Table selection is the most important decision you can make.”
  2. Marketing and branding – “Act weak when strong, act strong when weak. Know when to bluff.
  3. Financials – “Always be prepared for the worst possible scenario.”
  4. Strategy – “Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them.”
  5. Continual learning – “Educate yourself. Read books and learn from others who have done it before.”
  6. Culture – “You’ve gotta love the game. To become really good, you need to live it and sleep it.”

I really should have paid attention to rule four, but alas, I started the book too late. I have dusted off my copy of Play poker like the pros that I bought years ago and never used, and I am heading to an online poker table to start my Tony inspired journey.

Send a message to me on Twitter with your best poker tips!