In praise of average performers

It dawned on me this morning that they’re all gone. Someone must have come for them in the middle of the night, but they’re no longer there. The nice old-fashioned executive assistant who gave you hell when you asked to see her boss, then became downright maternal if you groveled a bit. Gone. The middle manager who complained about being overworked, yet came in at 9 am and left at 5:30 pm on the dot to catch his train, but somehow found the time to organize the March Madness pool and keep the books for the department. Also gone. And then there was the kid. She wasn’t quite sure why she worked there, but it paid the rent and they all thought she’d one day get excited about some business thing and go somewhere. Also gone.

American businesses have stopped growing because all the people have gone. The modern-day American enterprise is like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon: everybody in it is above average. We’ve become so good at weeding out middle- and low-performers that only the best have survived. As a result, US businesses are highly productive. But there’s no backfill for these high-performers. They’re so darn busy they can’t take on anything remotely growth-oriented. They have a job to do. And although they’re financially rewarded, most of them are miserable, crumbling under the demand for their time on task forces for development projects.

We’re killing the high-performers. The executive assistant used to protect the calendar. The middle manager could deal with some requests for information from his boss or other departments. And the young kid could every now and then get excited enough to do a worthy piece of development work that helped the cause. None of it was earth-shattering, but it did help our high-performer. No more. Now, our high-performer puts that work in his or her suitcase every night. And you want her to be on an innovation task force? Go participate with some customers in a co-creation effort?

The scarce resource for innovation work used to be money for external help. Now, it’s the people inside. “The only thing we’d consider is a project that would help us rationalize our initiatives and give some time back to our people,” I’m often told.  When the launching of a growth project is conditioned by a bureaucratic allocation of time exercise, you know you have a problem. Sadly, this is the reality of many US businesses.

Yet this seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon. Businesses in emerging countries are full of people experimenting with new models at the margin of the existing enterprise, even in traditional industries. Even European companies, perhaps because the social and regulatory environment doesn’t allow them to push out low performers so readily, have kept more resources to explore new ways of doing business. Average performers are not the right people to do creative innovation work, but they are the support mechanism for the high-performers who do.

There are also social consequences to this ruthless pruning of the American corporate tree. In its never-ending quest for productivity, American business has externalized the cost of caring for the less gifted or less motivated part of the population. There’s no longer room in business for the young college graduate who’s not yet figured out what to do with her life, the middle manager who’ll never be a star but could do a decent job at a middle-income level, or the end-of-career expert who could never figure out how to sell or manage. Let the system deal with their unemployment, their healthcare needs and the sociological consequences of their demise.

We used to have a basic solidarity. High-performers with a good education and high intellectual aptitude used to create jobs for others. Not everybody was geared for the fast track. It was OK to be a career middle manager, a factory worker or a secretary. The implicit contract was that the fast-tracker would manage a department of middle managers and have a secretary. Plants were meant to absorb people with good manual dexterity and good work ethics, but not necessarily the greatest conceptual abilities. Today, the fast-tracker is asked to weed out the middle managers and do his own clerical work through technology. As for manufacturing jobs, they’ve largely migrated to lower-cost countries. Who’s to fulfill the social role that used to be played by business?

Of course, businesses are not charitable institutions. They do need the best talent to compete, which fosters a Darwinian logic, at least to some extent. But embracing diversity is also creating jobs for those who don’t have the ability to create them for themselves. We cannot only be a nation of solo entrepreneurs. Some people need the help of others. It is easy to understand that for handicapped people, or members of ethnic or religious minorities. Why not extend that to people of average gifts or motivation?

In America, our businesses have become too efficient to innovate. We’re dying completely healed.

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3 Responses to “In praise of average performers”

  1. Great piece of writing, I like your eloquent style and even the point you’re making. Surely your remarks count for the entire Western world. Many are in meetings all day and need to do their work after office hours. Customer comes last…

  2. SR says:

    I work in the public sector, where in many respects we have the opposite problem to what you describe above — a surplus of what could be charitably described as “average” performers. This is frequently compounded by incentive systems and bureaucratic processes which often effectively guarantee that poor, mediocre and outstanding performances are equally rewarded. That generates tremendous externalities of its own.

    What I’ve observed among my colleagues is that while the stages are apparently set very differently, the end effect is largely the same: a culture of overworked high performers who have little flexibility or time to sit back and thoughtfully manage the things for which they’re responsible. There are intangible rewards to public service which compensate, to be sure — it’s nice not to be a slave to the next quarter’s balance sheet. But that doesn’t prevent the pressure from building up any more than an oversized compensation package would.

    The situation you describe strikes me as excessively tilted in one direction, but there are examples that go too far the other way. I think that the better question (and a really hard one) is how to find a balance among the qualities we value in an organization: security vs. accountability for results; financial rewards vs. intangible motivations; short- vs. long-term, etc.

    Thanks for the thoughtful and entertaining blog. I particularly liked your piece on BA, which was what led me here. Nicely written!

  3. We need a book on the unintended consequences and ‘externalizing’ of former roles of American business. Large US business before 1990s had a role of ensuring semi full employment…we need the backlash book to the productivity sacred canon. Great piece.

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