Seriously High Performing People - Are they Found or Made?

Updated: Aug 20, 2019



Nature or nurture is a perennial debate… and these are not words much used in the world of work which is somehow more direct. ‘Pay peanuts, get monkeys’ is another way you hear recruitment being described, while ‘ruthless performance management’, an approach that’s included firing the so-called worst 10% annually, is another approach to nurturing.Yet sometimes groups of people achieve something exceptional, and rather than wallow with the worst, we devoted a Forum evening to three views around the best.

One example is a tiny team with a vast challenge, so surely selection is all? The other two are big, well established teams with long histories of awkward relations between unions and bosses, public sector management and dreary performance. How do you change an environment like that? Firing everyone sounds attractive but isn’t especially practical, leaving nurture as the default option…

Our speakers, each with one of the best stories we’ve had for a long while, lined up like this:

We had Natalia Cohen, one of a team of six women who rowed, unsupported, 9,000 miles across the Pacific, the first time such a feat had been achieved.

The group came together just for this challenge so they didn’t know each other from Adam, or indeed Eve. Somehow they had to literally get the right people in the boat, then find ways of working together in all weathers, no space, a 24/7 need to make progress, huge uncertainty, physical exhaustion, currents and a need to pay for it all, plus, as a bonus, not killing each other in the process. What Natalia learned is valuable, and not just when you’re up a creek of some kind.

We had Vernon Everitt, also one of a team but in this case overseeing the whole of London’s transport system as Managing Director for Customers, Communication and Technology at Transport for London or TfL.

The world of London’s transport is not for the faint hearted. Numbers keep growing as the population increases, expectations rise as we all get a bit more American about service and digital media let us share our views. Yet the infrastructure available to move people around is brutally limited, largely build decades or more ago, with a workforce not afraid to challenge the management. Despite this the TfL team has achieved wonderful things including steering us through the Olympics, taking on roads, bikes, rail, ways of paying (Oyster then contactless technology) and the digital revolution (including free, open data) alongside buses and the underground, then dealing with terrorist threats and terrorist reality too. At the heart of the story is a clear reason to exist that has brought everyone together and given them direction. They have added useful insight into what matters (managing time in various ways). And then turned it into everyday practice with a resolutely honest, pragmatic yet imaginative approach, working through what’s in the way of a good result.

And we had Fergus Cusden bringing a story about safety at our National Air Traffic Service or NATS. 

Another organisation that was fond of the way we’ve always done things around here, and full of long serving air traffic controllers that had risen through the ranks, it didn’t look like fertile ground for something vibrant. Fergus was one of those who’d been there going on two decades, but something irked him about the attitude to safety. It wasn’t unsafe but there was an assumption that twenty or so risk-bearing near misses a year was as good as it was possible to get. What followed was a change of attitude, initially at the top, in two ways – any near miss was one too many and the ambition for zero was boldly stated internally. And then the senior team admitted they had no idea how to get there, to everyone, loudly. What followed is somehow counter-intuitive and complete common sense only underlining how uncommon such thinking is in business. It also worked, and Fergus told us how.

In a previous Forum we looked at a similar subject from another angle, getting insight into why good people do bad things. It turned out that no matter how ethically inclined an individual, the system they work within determines 85% of their performance. Why? A mixture of targets that point away from what matters and towards what’s easy to measure, coupled with authority that is difficult to defy even if gently expressed, and in many places its style is closer to robust.

"So the system is critical to performance and surely the answer we're looking for, no?" "There's another view that's also persuasive. Recruit for values and train for skill."

The assumption here is that the qualities you really want in any group of people assembled around a shared goal are those that naturally fit. When we have individual preferences for ways of doing things, and principles that we hold dear, it’s best to mix like with like. Fairness and democracy plus individualism and market forces tend to equal a difficult result. Precision and reflection versus ‘charge’ can be similar. Of course a balance of some kind is ideal, but perhaps more a balance of ways of working rather than more deeply held attitudes and beliefs.

"In our work we have learned about the importance of belief - less in individuals and more what's shared, unspoken, across a group."

If the group believes you exist to maximise profit, no amount of saying customers come first will make it so. What actually happens is mainly the former, only reinforcing collective certainty that deeds not words tell the story of priorities.

Changing or shaping these shared beliefs is extremely difficult. We’re social animals and we like to fit in, so even the most determined CEO can find themselves slipping beneath the surface, overcome by the status quo, or if they’re more determined experiencing organ rejection (in this case all of their organs and whatever fits in a cardboard box). Which goes to explain why this conversation promised much. Two versions of changes in beliefs, encouraging people to care and to try things that could have been rejected out of hand, and one of the forging of belief amongst a group freshly recruited, who didn’t really have much to go on other than a small vessel and an awful lot of water.

Three views, plus wisdom from around the room, on where human high performance Is found, or how it might be created

The discussion that followed, summed up by Simon Caulkin

Spending nine months rowing 9000 miles across the Pacific as part of a six-woman crew in a 29-foot rowing boat called Doris, setting two world records in the process, is seriously high performance by any standards. So on a different scale is moving 2 million aircraft and 150m passengers safely through increasingly crowded UK airspace annually with a vanishingly small margin of error. Likewise the challenge of keeping a great capital city working and moving, 24/7, 365 days a year. These were the narratives through which April’s Foundation Forum looked at the nature of outperformance – is it born, is it made, how do you get to it? These questions of course go to the heart of performance management, whose literature is nearly as extensive as that on leadership.

Are there commonalities between endurance rowing, extreme safety and maintaining a complex human entity in perpetual motion? It turns out the answer is yes: different as the achievements are, as intriguing are the denominators that the Forum teased out as the speakers filled the gaps that the ‘exam question’ begged: fundamental questions about discretionary effort, motivation, and how and why people work together in organisations for common aims.

In his investigation of the chemistry of ‘great groups’, leadership guru Warren Bennis wrote that super-performers believe they are ‘on a mission from God’. Being British, forum speakers didn’t put it like that. But without prompting each made abundantly clear that shared purpose and the meaning derived from it were central to what was achieved. Imagine sharing a tiny privacy-free vessel 24 hours a day for months at a time, the euphoria shot through with episodes of exhaustion, boredom and terror, on an enormous empty ocean. It would be inconceivable without a vision to keep a team strong and stable, to coin a phrase, under extreme pressure the personalities, backgrounds and motivations of the six women were different – but ‘as long as we had that shared vision and purpose, there was a unifying factor’, said Natalia Cohen, one of the ‘Coxless Crew’.

For the newly privatised NATS, formerly National Air Traffic Services, it was the ‘impossible’ challenge of reducing riskbearing air misses from the previously accepted level of 20 a year to zero that galvanised the management team and, after some considerable soul searching, agonising around whether it was achievable or not and whether that mattered or not, aligned it behind a compelling purpose, said Fergus Cusden, NATS Safety Director at the time.

Meanwhile TfL’s challenge is presenting a unified face to the public with a workforce of 100,000 of whom 75,000 are employed by suppliers and franchised bus companies and only 25,000 are direct employees. The visual unifier is the famous LT roundel that is part of the uniform. The roundel represents the purpose that binds them together – a purpose that is not transport as such, emphasizes Vernon Everitt, TfL’s Managing Director for Customers, Communication and Technology, but rather the end to which transport is the means, that is the daily challenge ‘to keep London working, moving and growing [at the rate of two full tube trains of new people a week], and to make life in the city better.’

"Performance is dependent on knitting individuals into a team"

Any sports follower knows that star talent, while charismatic and an aid to ticket sales, doesn’t translate directly to winning on the pitch. Poor systems turn geniuses into idiots – as systems guru Peter Senge lamented, ‘how can a team of committed individuals with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63?’ Conversely, a brilliant system can perform way above the sum of the individual parts. You’d probably want an air-traffic control system to work like Toyota, where installing a new Chairman excites as much notice as changing a lightbulb, rather than as a collection of clever temperamenta individuals.

Everitt spoke for all the speakers when he noted that ‘the working environment lends itself most heavily to actually producing the types of behaviours that organisations want to suit the needs of their customers’; which in turn suggests that ‘the key for leadership is to create the conditions to enable people to do the right thing – not with a manual from head office but just intuitively know what the right thing is – for the organisation’. And then trust them to do it.

An energised and engaged staff rose brilliantly to the occasion in the 2012 Olympics, ‘where, in the minds of many, we were the only people left who could screw it up’. More dauntingly, ‘no one told the staff at Westminster Station what to do on the day of the recent attack. There’s no manual for it. The staff just acted and did the right thing. And that’s because the management say I'll tell you what, there's no point in us telling you what to do you're the experts, you deal with the situation on the ground’.

Nevertheless, since not everyone can or is willing do everything, outperformance demands some selection, or self-selection, for context. Signing up for the purpose is non-negotiable. Whether or not they’d left the riverbank before (‘I’d never rowed before and never want to again,’ insisted Cohen with feeling), members of the Coxless Crew had to want to spend months together traversing the Pacific in a cockleshell. In air traffic control, Cusden noted that only one in 500 applicants makes the grade, ‘because your brain has to work in a specific, rather strange way. So there’s definitely some “found” in there – and that’s the case for leadership as well’.

The ‘finding’ bit isn’t always obvious, however. When NATS leaders decided that zero airmisses was the only goal that made sense, Cusden admitted, they had ‘no idea’ how to get there. It quickly dawned that their focus was the wrong way round. The big story wasn’t how controllers were allowing through 20 air misses a year – it was how 1.999 million times a year they got it right. They were the solution, not the problem, and to fix the real issue they had to be free to say what was really going wrong instead of hiding it. Incident reports soared. ‘An extraordinary amount of data emerged, and suddenly we’re on the same side, right? ...So maybe the first question is, are they really the problem, or have you not engaged them in the right way – and actually our unions became a massive strength for us on the whole safety side of things’.

With shared purpose supported by measures that keep people pointing in the right direction, methods adapt as necessary. Thus NATS managed to install a new facility to manage general aviation movements in three months instead of the normal five to 10 years. How? ‘Because we were getting up in the morning to create the space for our people to deliver the solutions’, says Cusden. Over the big picture, NATS went from 20 a year to just one air miss in five years. On the Doris, methods were more personal. Crew members had developed individual motivators to call on when needed. When things got really tough (and 2 hours on, 2 hours off, rowing, 24 hours a day, for nine months, sometimes because of wind and currents going backwards despite the effort to go forwards, is tough), Cohen broke it down to manageable chunks – each two-hour rowing shift, each stroke, being there in the moment enjoying the light and the sea, not looking forward, not looking back.

At TfL, a light bulb moment, said Everitt, came ‘when we realised that the sorts of pain points for our customers are exactly the same pain points for staff, so if you fix one you fix both.’ Oyster and contactless payment are a win-win-win, benefiting customers through ease of use, staff because they are dealing with happier customers, and the organisation by reducing cost. ‘You just find those pain points and you very often find there are wins in it for everyone.’

In three stories of seriously high performance, as noteworthy as what the speakers did talk about was what they didn’t. The conventional language of management was barely used.

"There was not one mention of incentives or money. No one talked of 'human resources', 'performance indicators', 'outcomes' or 'delivery'"

Rules and regulations were invoked, but to play down their importance compared to principles and doing the right thing.  Each in their different way emphasized the importance of purpose, honesty and the extraordinary results that follow from allowing, even requiring, ordinary people to be themselves.

Cohen summed it up for all of them: ‘For us, we all had the same vision. We worked hard and I suppose we found the magic in the journey. For any team to function at all you need to have an underlying trust and respect, and I think that was evident with the team. We stepped on that boat as teammates and we stepped off as lifelong friends’.

The Foundation's view

What an outpouring of common sense but in a way that is extremely uncommon…  From our perspective and in the context of our work and experiences at The Foundation, three headlines emerged:

1‘Purpose’ can be more usefully framed as getting everyone onto the same side.

The importance for any organisation of having an answer to the question ‘why do we exist?’, and for that answer to be more fulfilling than maximising money in some way, is increasingly recognised.  But the more it is discussed the harder it gets to hang on to what it really means – what makes the idea useful not just fashionable.  Fergus described the difficulty at NATS of first saying out loud that they should only accept and aim for zero near misses a year despite the widespread view that this might be impossible.  What if the organisation ended up simply underlining its inadequacy, making everyone feel bad, rather than celebrating the achievement of managing millions of flights a year in exemplary fashion?  But having realised that zero was the only target the team could morally contemplate, they found that sharing it had a wonderfully aligning effect. 

The biggest fear for an air traffic controller is that they make a mistake that kills hundreds of people.  Having your employer stand shoulder to shoulder with you and share both that fear and the intent to stop at nothing to avoid it, then open up channels to explore honestly, constructively and in a ‘Just culture’ how to achieve it together meant that now everyone was aligned. 

The unions were suspicious to start with, but once they trusted that motives were genuine they too swung behind the work.  Maximising money for one group, shareholders say, pits people against each other.  Achieving something worthwhile, funded by enough money, brings everyone togetherHuman, common sense ways of working are liberating. Transport for London has nigh on 60,000 people working directly and indirectly across the transport systems of London, and plenty more than that across the country in related activities.  They have people from all kinds of backgrounds and all corners of the globe managing millions of customers and journeys. Those customers’ experiences matter, their journeys need to be effective and timely to keep London running, and everything needs to be safe.  Costs need to be reduced, new technology embraced and unions kept onside.  Potentially a recipe for The Office levels of management contribution.  What Vernon Everitt described though was wonderfully straightforward and yet extremely rare.  Be honest – tell it how it is.  Treat people like adults in explaining the pressures to deliver more while keeping costs down, to use technology to change the ways things are done, to have fewer people working and to change the nature of the job (modern signalling changes the way a train is driven for example).  And let people do things their way, like the announcements made on the tube system and now on buses too – it just matters that travellers are kept in touch, but the style is down to the individual.  Or whiteboards at tube stations with messages of the day that just started happening, and in that awful Westminster moment where the station team acted effectively and as they saw fit in the moment, the whiteboards provided an outlet for solidarity and heartfelt messages of empathy and defiance.The answer to the question? Perhaps it is that ‘people and teams are found and THEN made’. 

Natalia had never even rowed before.  She answered an ad on a website, and went through a series of interviews and tests that were fairly extreme.  But nothing compared to rowing the Pacific.  Did they know they could do it, or were they just the best six from a fairly small pool who responded?  They were very different characters tackling the challenge for a range of reasons, but what made the exceptional possible seemed to be the way they went about it.  Natalia described the 2 hours on, 2 hours off, 24 hours a day, and the 29 foot boat with a smaller-than-single-bed-sized shelter for two people to rest in, but then the way they understood each other, learned to work constructively with their strengths and hot buttons, stayed in the moment enjoying the light, sky, sea and banishing thoughts of the past and future.  They constructed a way of working that allowed the upper end of ordinary to become extraordinary, and this seemed to be exactly what Fergus and Vernon were also describing.  Good people doing great things, lifted by what they shared, the ways they operated and the ways they were led.

A couple more things to add...

If you want to know what the NATS challenge really looks like, this two and a half minute video will make your hair curl and your eyes widen.  It’s also beautiful.

If you want to see and hear a much fuller version of Natalia’s story and the team's journey, their documentary Losing Sight of Shore is available on iTunes, Amazon and Netflix.  The trailer is here

We would also like to mention that Natalia is looking to share her learning more widely and is keen to do inspirational keynote talks and team workshops of different kinds.  So do get in touch on if keen

Fergus is also happy to share his learning and help in relevant situations, and he’s on

About the Foundation

The Foundation is a management consultancy specialising in growth. We help clients address big organic growth challenges; growing faster, growing into new markets or fending off threats to growth

What these challenges share is the need to influence customer behaviour, but this is inherently tough. Why? Because people in any organisation naturally see the world from the inside-out, with colleagues close and customers distant, and lots of assumptions about how things work that aren't challenged

We help clients look from the outside-in, re-connecting them with what customers really value (the problem they want to solve, not usually what the client sells), then finding new and better ways to create this value

This means working both as expert advisors and facilitators. The issue with simply gathering outside-in information is that it lacks impact to get senior teams to tackle inconvenient truths in what customers want, and to believe their own organisation can be different

By using ‘Immersion’, personal conversations with customers and leaders of organisations in other sectors who have tackled parts of their challenge, we help teams get round beliefs that stand in their way. This helps them develop better answers for customers and new ways of achieving lasting success

We most often answer three questions:

Developing new propositions

Improving customers’ experiences

Developing customer-led strategies for broader issues such as increasing retention or lifetime value

Our clients include HSBC, JLR, O2, M&S and Ebay, with achievements including helping create Plan A at M&S, adding £100m of value to a Travelex travel money proposition, and giving Morrisons a competitive direction contributing to their return to growth

Behind our work our most distinctive characteristic is our team and their outlook. Each individual is motivated to and experienced in crossing the border between the worlds of customers and business which often resist mixing well

This link will take you to more information about us and our Forum events:

Contact Details

Charlie Dawson (Founding Partner): / +44 7785 268 859

Charlie Sim (Director) / +44 7958 574 917

Anna Miley (Director) / +44 7816 261 987

John Sills (Managing Director) / +44 7990 943 402

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