As I boarded a Japan Airlines international first class not long ago, a flight attendant at the entrance to the aircraft greeted me in Japanese with, “Doctor Bleistein! We’ve been expecting you!” rather than the typical, “Welcome aboard, sir!” in English. Not only did she know my name, but but also that my title is “Doctor” and presumed correctly that I speak Japanese, when typically the presumption would be that I don’t.
After the flight leveled off, I got out of my seat and approached her to ask how she knew all this about me. The flight attendant explained that she Googles all first class passengers on the manifest ahead of time, and in her experience, most first class passengers get a lot of hits. She endeavors to know something about each of the passengers for when she interacts with us.
She knew about my business and my book from my website, had read one or two of my articles in the Japanese business press, had watched a TV interview of mine on Bloomberg News, and had watched at least one of the videos in which I speak Japanese, which is how she knew she could use Japanese with me. She knew what I looked like, so she could recognize me.
I asked her if this is a new practice at Japan airlines. She told me it is not. She is the only one who does this. It is entirely her innovation, and an excellent one.
After all, a talented flight attendant is hospitable. A peak-performing flight attendant builds relationships with passengers.
I have often heard business people speak of peak performance, but I have rarely if ever heard peak-performance defined. I have my own definition though. By peak performance, I mean behaviors that get outstanding business results.
Peak performance is about excellence, and the Japan Airlines flight attendant I mention above is a peak performer. In my experience, peak performers like her share six behaviors in common.
1. Peak performers initiate independent action.
A peak performers never wait for orders or direction from above, nor do they seek approval from their bosses before acting on anything that is within the scope of the objectives of their job and furthers the objectives of the business. They merely keep their managers informed of what they are doing. They initiate action. So rather than seeking prior approval, they move forward first. They put the onus on their manager to tell them to stop if there is an issue. There rarely is.
An R&D manager I know independently decided to go interview customers about their experience with a new product the company had recently released on his own initiative because he wanted data to help him improve the product—an objective squarely in his wheelhouse.
His boss did not tell him to do it, and he did not need permission. The R&D manger just acted. He did not seek approval from the sales division but merely informed the sales director what he was doing. He did not wait for the marketing department to get around to surveying customers, which it does from time to time, but he did share the results of his survey with marketing.
Managers often tell me that they wish their staff would act independently more often rather than wait for orders and direction from above. They ask me how best to go about making that happen.
Staff mimic their managers. So I advise managers to first be sure that they initiate independent action themselves vis-a-vis their own boss.
It is unrealistic for a manager to expect staff to initiate to independent action when he or she approaches his or her own manager tentatively, waits for direction, or routinely seeks approval before acting. Success in changing behavior among staff starts with serving as an avatar for the people you lead.
2. Peak performers take responsibility for their own education.
Peak performers do not wait for the company to provide training. They educate themselves routinely whether the company provides training or not.
Not long ago, some members of a sales team complained to me that they never get enough training from the company. When I asked how many of them have read books on selling, only two people raised their hands. These two sales people both had the highest sales results in the group.
Peak performing sales people routinely read books on sales. Peak performing managers read books on all aspects of business. Peak performing staff and managers at all levels and across all functions work on improving English ability irrespective of age or language ability.
In this day and age there is no excuse for not educating yourself. My thirteen-year-old son recently taught himself to program in C++, how to do basic financial analysis, and how to compose music with a keyboard and midi software—all for free online. If he can educate himself, so can anyone!
If you are a manager with staff, it is perfectly reasonable for you to demand staff educate themselves, as long as you provide support at the same time. Rakuten Ichiba CEO Hiroshi Mikitani some years back notoriously made English the working language of the company globally, even in the head office in Japan—a bold initiative which the CEO of Honda at the time publicly criticized as “stupid!”
Mikitani pays little heed to such critics. He required all managers above a certain level to demonstrate proficiency in English within three years, or otherwise find their careers stymied. He allowed employees to pursue educating themselves however worked best for them—even allowing them to use office hours for study as long as they achieved the objectives of their jobs. Mikitani boasts of an eighty percent success rate of the initiative.
Mikitani says he did this to create a truly global company, and I am certain that was the primary objective. However, I suspect Mikitani also wanted to identify peak performers, and retain and promote them, while subtly encouraging the less-than-peak performers to self-select out of the business.
3. Peak performers take reasonable business risk.
By reasonable business risk, I mean any risk whose potential upside gain exceeds potential downside loss.
Always undertake any risk with high upside gain and low downside loss. Even though sometimes you might lose, overall gains will far exceed losses. Both you and the business will be better off. This same principle applies to business strategy, financial investment, and even to individual work.
Peak performing sales people I know never negotiate business terms with an intermediary who has no economic buying authority. They make no offer, discuss no price, submit no proposal, nor provide any quotation. They only negotiate business with a true economic buyer—that is to say a the person who can independently authorize payment.
Peak performing sales people know that the chances of a successful proposal submitted through an intermediary are exceedingly low, whereas the best sales people have a high success rate when dealing only with an economic buyer.
So when dealing with an intermediary, they ask politely for introduction to the economic buyer. If the intermediary refuses, the peak performer either bypasses the intermediary and contacts the economic buyer independently and directly, or otherwise walks away to pursue better prospects.
Peak performing sales people know that the upside gain of dealing with an economic buyer is high. They have a high success rate when doing so, whereas the downside potential loss from angering an intermediary in by-passing him or her is negligible. If the buyer buys, the intermediary will fall in line with his or her boss, even if initially annoyed at having been circumvented. If the buyer does not buy, there is no loss because proposing through an intermediary would not have worked anyway. If the buyer becomes irate for having been contacted directly, who cares? This is someone with whom you would never have been able to work or have a good relationship. Best to move on to better prospects, of which there are plenty.
4. Peak performers are business outcome driven—not just adhering to some arbitrary process.
The enemy of peak performance is bureaucracy. By bureaucracy, I mean the triumph of means over ends.
At one company I know, a sales team refused to accept orders for excess inventory from a customer if it meant they sold more than what they had forecast. Why? All to ensure their forecast is accurate against real sales. Accuracy is a KPI after all.
Sell more than you had forecast, and you end up with variance in some report—which somehow is considered bad no matter the benefit to the business. Never mind that the company would then have to dispose of unsold inventory as scrap, to say nothing of unnecessarily turning down business from a successful customer who sold more volume than anticipated and the loss of opportunity to both businesses!
The company CEO had been unaware of this practice until a manager finally pointed out its folly. The CEO immediately changed the practice—KPI reports be damned!
Peak performers always keep the best interests of the business in mind when deciding how to do something, even if that means discarding unneeded bureaucracy, or challenging processes and rules. Peak performers also don’t avoid confrontation internally when it is in the best interests the business to make a change. If you want to be a peak performer, neither should you—no matter your rank in the company!
Particularly If you are a manager with staff, you ought to challenge needless bureaucracy, even when it means confronting powerful colleagues or superiors if you expect your staff to do the same. Be prepared to meet resistance when you do this, but pay it no heed. Find the person who is responsible and accountable for the business results, and who cares about the money! In the example above, the manager who challenged such foolhardy bureaucratic practice had to go all the way to the CEO! You might have to as well.
5. Peak performers innovate.
It might surprise you to learn that most innovations in companies come from frontline or junior staff, not from R&D or executives who go on retreats to splashy locations.
The innovation of the airline mileage program was the idea of a junior level marketing team at American Airlines in the 1970s. The idea was so successful that every airline imitated the idea almost immediately, and today loyalty points are ubiquitous far beyond the airline industry. I recently heard that the value of United Airlines mileage points which the company carries on its balance sheet as an asset is valued at over two billion dollars!
In Japan in the 1990s, the innovation of NTT’s revolutionary iMode service, the world’s first mobile phone that could connect the internet, was initially proposed by junior staff. More recently Godiva, the world-famous purveyor of chocolates, offered in Japan a chocolate product sold in convenience stores that is meant to be melted into hot coffee beverages from the store’s coffee machine. A junior sales person came up with the idea. The product has been highly successful.
Innovations don’t need to be big like the iPhone . Small ones make a difference, like that of the Japan Airlines flight attendant I first discussed. Small improvements add up. If you improve 1% per day, in 70 days you’re twice as good!
Innovation does not have to be technical either. You can innovate new sales processes, new business models, new decision-making frameworks, new delivery methods, and even new ways of packaging a product. Anyone can innovate any aspect of the business.
One of the most common sources of innovation is an unexpected event, such as a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. I can tell you from what I have seen among my clients who have emerged successfully from the state of emergency in Japan is that they all innovated aspects of the business—and a lot of those innovations occurred on the frontlines and among junior staff. I am certain that the same has happened at your company.
So if you are a manager at any level, and you don’t see any recent innovations in your organization, chances are you are not looking hard enough. So go find them.
The greatest loss of opportunity to most companies is not lack of innovation but rather unexploited innovation because of lack of visibility. In the case of the Japan Airlines flight attendant I discussed, her innovation is unknown to Japan Airlines management. She is the only flight attendant who uses it. Imagine the impact on Japan Airline’s business if her innovation were shared with everyone.
6. Peak performers treat failure as learning.
You show me someone who never fails, and I’ll show you someone who never learns anything new or ever achieves much of consequence. Failure is an inherent part of learning and business success.
Taking on reasonable business risk means that sometimes you won’t succeed, and most good ideas that come out of innovation simply don’t work. Yet both of these behaviors are required for peak performance and business success.
So as an individual, failure is not something for you to avoid at all costs. Failure is nothing negative, and there is no stigma in failure. The key is to always understand why the failure occurred to do better in the future. Failure is to be taken in stride, as long as you learn from it.
A sales proposal was rejected? Find out why. As a sales person it is perfectly reasonable to ask the buyer who rejected the proposal if there is anything the sales person could done differently that would have resulted in a different decision. If you ask this, start by clarifying that “This is for my own personal edification,” not to try to turn the rejection around. No one will hold that against you, and most people will be candid about his or her thinking in rejecting your proposal. It’s the kind of question a peak performer asks, and who knows? Maybe you will make a better offer to them in the future.
When a failure occurs, and failure always occurs even in successful businesses, peak performers always seek to understand cause rather than to assign blame. As a manager with staff, if you assign blame and responsibility for routine business failures, your staff will stop taking business risk and innovating, both of which are essential for success.
So as manager, you ought to give permission to fail, as long as learning from failure is standard practice. This is not a blanket pass on poor performance, as long as manager you do not tolerate making the same mistake twice. Repeated mistakes after all are an indication of lack of learning, and not learning is never acceptable.
The peak performing managers I know reward staff both for the right behaviors and successful results. If you reward staff only for success and penalize failure, you will only discourage the peak performance behaviors of innovating and taking reasonable business risk.
If you want to encourage the right behaviors, do what I advise all my clients. Establish an award for the best idea that did not work. My most successful clients do just that. You can do the same, and then success is all yours.
Think for a moment about how these six behaviors apply to your own work. What might you change or improve starting today? Anyone can be a peak performer as long as he or she has the resolve to be one. It is just a matter of the right behaviors. What are yours?