Many of the leaders I work with are confronted by the challenge of how to elevate the performance of their direct reports; the team of people whose efforts are essential to make a long-lasting impact on an organization. It’s easy to attempt to address that challenge, however, by starting in the wrong place: focusing first on what a direct report needs to work on, improve or fix about their work.

The reason that focusing exclusively on what needs fixing can be illustrated by athletic coaching; showing a player where not to throw the ball does not necessarily help her know where to throw the ball. It’s a start, but fails to truly set the player up for success. At best, it simply sets the player up ‘not to lose’.

There’s another problem with attempting to elevate individual performance by fixing what’s broken. By looking into the past at failures to perform and attending to them at the exclusion of considering the challenges that lie ahead, we assume that what needs to be ‘fixed’ about someone’s work will support them in meeting tomorrow’s challenges. This assumption is not always the best approach. Instead, the opportunity is to orient someone to take on the skills and behaviors necessary for a new level of results, and not simply filling the gaps needed to produce what’s always been produced.

From team to individual

The dynamics of team performance mirror those of individual performance. High-performing teams (in the military, on the field, or at the office) are inspired to accomplish something big.

Nissan, for example, commissioned a team with the expressed purpose of beating Porsche at its home test track in Germany. NASA was charged by John Kennedy to send a man to the moon and return them safely to Earth. These are big games that call for people to bring big versions of themselves to their work.

Similarly, elevating performance at the individual level is also driven by something big: a promotion, the success of a key initiative, or perhaps a new level of contribution to one’s colleagues or customers. This is the leverage point for leaders: to find a game big enough that calls for an individual to rise to the occasion and generate a new level of leadership.

Encouraging disruptive leadership to emerge

What does it look like to inspire disruptive leadership? A straightforward conversation based on curiosity and listening works well. Try any of the following questions as places to begin:

  • “What are you excited about accomplishing this year?”
  • “What kind of impact do you want to make on the business?”
  • “What kind of resources would we need to assemble to accomplish that?”

Having answered those questions, it is then appropriate to inquire as to the kind of skills needed for success.

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