How Top Performers Thrive

A new book takes the mystery out of what separates top performers from everybody else, and reveals the keys to high performance.
February 10, 2010
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

Sometimes we perceive the concept of high performance as something so mysterious or complex that it seems unachievable. That is why Geoff Colvin's book, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, is so powerful, and so relevant in today's competitive work environment.

Colvin posits, without denying its importance, that natural talent alone is not enough. According to his research, "deliberate practice" or focused concentration, amassing a body of knowledge in a particular field and cultivating the ability to bring that knowledge to bear at critical moments are the keys to high performance. His theory holds important implications for those in local, state and federal government.

How Deliberate Practice and Domain Knowledge Work

Colvin first discusses what distinguishes deliberate practice from the innate talent and routine practice so many of us perceive as the best route to outstanding performance. He theorizes that deliberate practice results in high achievement because:

Today, public management expert Bob O'Neill considers the recent proposition that Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers . . . . The factors he examines are encouraging, and suggest that someone who listens, observes carefully and applies internal discipline can produce innovative breakthroughs. To me, these ideas can come from any public servants who care about the results of their work, provided they are willing to disrupt the status quo - not an insignificant risk."

- Stephen Goldsmith

  • It is designed specifically to improve performance. Practice without knowing which activities will improve performance may only result in misguided efforts. In the early stages of our careers and periodically throughout our professional lives, we require a teacher, mentor or coach to assist us in identifying our weaknesses and designing an improvement plan that helps us turn those weaknesses into strengths.
  • It can be repeated extensively. Colvin suggests that repeating "a properly demanding activity in [our] learning zone" is critical to achieving top performance. He cites champion golfer Tiger Woods and baseball great Ted Williams as individuals who attempted the same shot or hit the ball obsessively until they got it right.
  • It incorporates continuous feedback. Providing one's own feedback during practice isn't particularly useful. Ongoing, constructive criticism from a teacher, mentor or coach is critical to improving performance.
  • It is mentally demanding. Deliberate practice requires sustained concentration on improving the unsatisfactory areas of our performance. Such effort may be mentally exhausting, but it is the only type of practice that ensures top performance.
  • It is serious stuff. Doing the things we do well may be enjoyable, but it is the antithesis of deliberate practice. Identifying areas where improvement is needed most and repeatedly engaging in activities that focus on those areas is the key to enhancing performance.

Deliberate practice is only the first step toward achieving high performance. Colvin goes on to say that top professionals accomplish more because they use the knowledge they've amassed in a field, or what Colvin calls "domain knowledge," to:

  • Pick up on subtle indicators that go unnoticed by the rest of us to forecast trends. This type of perception isn't instinctive. It requires sustained practice to learn how to "recognize" the right signs.
  • Look further ahead. Top performers aren't psychic, but they do cultivate the ability to look beyond the immediate to see the future in a way that most of us cannot see.
  • Know more from seeing less. Top performers cultivate the ability to make fast, cost-effective decisions based on limited amounts of information.
  • Make finer discriminations than average performers. Top performers can also correctly evaluate situations and see distinctions most people ignore, thus gaining a competitive edge.

What Colvin's Theory Means for Public Service

One powerful example of how deliberate practice leads to domain knowledge and, ultimately, to results that matter is citizen engagement.

No matter how smart or talented we are, artfully guiding a plurality of residents through civil discourse that results in collaboration and compromise, rather than chaos, requires a body of knowledge inherent to few of us. To achieve high levels of accomplishment in this area, we must master the ability to:

  • Convey a community's social, economic and political history and future;
  • Communicate effectively, understand group dynamics and facilitate productive discussion; and,
  • Appreciate the value (rather than the disadvantages) that working with diverse individuals and groups brings to decision-making.

Acquiring this knowledge requires sustained practice. We must attend endless council and community meetings. We must dial up our communications and psychological skills. And finally, we must challenge ourselves by working with groups until we master the art of engaging participants in productive discourse.

Applying Colvin's Theories to Public Leadership

All levels of government operate in a wide variety of arenas, and citizen engagement is only one. As I read Colvin's book, I thought about all the things that governments do and wondered how leaders can build a cohesive whole from an organization in which there's a high concentration of domain-specific top performers. It occurred to me that this could be where Colvin's theory falls short.

I then began to think about the role of "conductor" as a potential knowledge domain. In The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Culture, author Frans Johansson explains how a successful conductor can foster an organizational culture that encourages cross-domain exploration and new approaches to complex, multidisciplinary issues. In this kind of environment, an individual who has amassed extensive knowledge in the domain of leadership becomes even more important.

Achieving the outcomes we want in the areas that matter most to citizens - public safety, jobs creation, community and economic development, education, health care and the environment - requires an organization that attracts and retains individuals with extensive knowledge and experience. Connecting these areas of domain knowledge, however, requires someone capable of much more than just managing an organization; it requires an experienced, knowledgeable conductor who can create a whole that is consistently greater than the sum of its parts.