Accelerate Your Performance

18: Solid Performers: Who Are They?

April 08, 2019 Studer Education Season 1 Episode 18
Accelerate Your Performance
18: Solid Performers: Who Are They?
Accelerate Your Performance
18: Solid Performers: Who Are They?
Apr 08, 2019 Season 1 Episode 18
Studer Education

Middle solid performers make up half of our organization and have a lot to offer. It’s important for leaders to give them direction and opportunities to grow. Today we focus on 5 actions you can take to best support middle performers. 

This episode addresses questions, such as: 

  • What do middle performers want from their leaders? 
  • How can you help middle performers progress up the performance curve? 
  • How can you provide middle performers with the right feedback?  

Solid Performers: Who Are They? is the third episode in a series describing the performance curve and performance conversations, beginning with Ep. #16 High Performers: Who Are They?. 

Recommended Reading: The Power of Moving the Middle: Transforming Middle Performers Into High Achievers by: Jack Spartz 

Recommended Learning: Differentiating Staff Performance 

Show Notes Transcript

Middle solid performers make up half of our organization and have a lot to offer. It’s important for leaders to give them direction and opportunities to grow. Today we focus on 5 actions you can take to best support middle performers. 

This episode addresses questions, such as: 

  • What do middle performers want from their leaders? 
  • How can you help middle performers progress up the performance curve? 
  • How can you provide middle performers with the right feedback?  

Solid Performers: Who Are They? is the third episode in a series describing the performance curve and performance conversations, beginning with Ep. #16 High Performers: Who Are They?. 

Recommended Reading: The Power of Moving the Middle: Transforming Middle Performers Into High Achievers by: Jack Spartz 

Recommended Learning: Differentiating Staff Performance 

Thank you for joining today’s Accelerate Your Performance Podcast. And thank you for having a desire to be your best at  work and helping your organization achieve success. This podcast focuses on tactical actions to improve workplace culture and these tactics align to our Nine Principles® for Organizational Excellence.  

 Today, we’ll focus on “What is a middle performer?”

 Last week I presented the performance curve.  Most people in an organization are middle performers. Middle performers have average will and skill.  And our goal as leaders is to create work environments that support moving middle performers to continuously improve their performance.  Good, solid performers have a lot to offer organizations. They rely on us to give them direction and opportunities to grow.  That’s a good thing.

 I’ve taught high school and college students – teenagers to adults in graduate school.  Some of my best experiences occurred when I made an impact with middle or average performers. 

 Recently, something neat occurred.  I ran across one of my former high school math students through a social media platform. I reached out to message him remembering something special about this young man.  He was in my Geometry class. That was my favorite class to teach – unlike most people, I loved Geometry. As I read about Jeff, I recognized he was a high school math teacher. That’s what he chose as a profession.  Thrilled to see this, I sent him a note – “So proud of you.” He replied, “Thanks. I attribute some of that success to your 9th grade geometry class. You were a great teacher. It’s amazing to see what you are doing.” And, through several other posts, he asks me to let him know when I was in his area of the country.  I could meet his wife and kids.  

 Wow – Jeff was in my class 30 years ago.  And, I felt like it was only yesterday when this young man was sitting in the front row to the left side of the room in my class.  And, now he is a math teacher and has a family that must mean a great deal to him. 

 Like me when I was his age in the class, I was considered a middle performer.  In fact, it’s difficult for people who’ve known me for a while to wrap their minds around the fact that I taught mathematics and received my doctoral degree in measurement and evaluation.  They almost look at me like– “I didn’t know you were that smart.”  And, they still don’t believe it. It’s as if I must have come back to this earth a different person.  In my younger years, I tended to be more of the life of the party than a serious student. If you know what I mean. 

 Average to me was a little more than a C student – my parents expected more. I was one of those individuals who was not the best but good enough to be on the edge of the best. That’s still true today.  I’ve grown to love that place.  It makes me continue to work harder in life. 

 You have your place on the performance curve that relates to your experiences. Regardless of our place, we can always improve.

 In the late 80s, I left to go to Florida State University to engage in my doctoral experience. I knew I was more in the middle of the performance curve than the high end. At any given time, there were around 15 people in our program.  And, being around them reinforced I was in the middle. They were so smart. I felt I had somehow gotten lucky to be there. I told myself – “don’t blow it Janet.  You’ve been given a gift.”

 I knew I would be okay and could succeed – but, you ask, why? That’s what my parents taught me.  Take on a challenge, give all you have, and live with success.  And, if you fall, cry for a minute, then get up, shake it off, and try again.  I’m lucky to have parents who instilled this in me. They are one of my greatest gifts in life.

 During my second semester in the doctoral program my confidence changed because of an experience I had with a particular professor.  I was taking a research class.  We had to write a paper on a topic at hand.  I chose to approach the topic with a compare and contrast approach.  When in class, I received the graded paper from the professor. At the top it said – “F for not spelling my name correctly.”  My stomach dropped to my toes. 

 Her name was Dr. Emihovich spelled EMI hovich and I spelled her name with EMO – Emohovich.  I still get nervous when I spell her name, even as we speak. Now, I’m feeling really bad about myself – how embarrassing.  And, I was sitting right in front of her on the front row.  I couldn’t escape.  She walked over to me. I didn’t look up.  Dr. Emihovich said, “I’m just kidding. You use the compare/contrast approach really well.” She then asked me to make an appointment to come see her in her office that week. I have to admit – I was still nervous.  

 During that visit, she praised me for being a good writer.  That was the first time in my entire academic life someone had praised me for my ability to write.  

 I will never forget Dr. Emihovich.  She changed the meaning of my academic experience. Most important, her connection with me instilled the drive to do more writing and to have confidence in myself to do so. She entrusted me with leading a project in Gadsden County, Florida on infant mortality, which also changed my perspectives in life. 

 Ironically, our paths crossed again years later. We were dean colleagues.  She was the dean of the College of Education at the University of Florida, and I was the dean of the College of Professional Studies at the University of West Florida. 

 Small acts make big differences and change people’s lives for the better. I hope that’s the way Jeff, my high school math student, feels about me.  Our connection makes me think so.

 Middle, solid performers are the backbones of our organizations. They need leaders to help them professionally grow.  We can be that leader. 


Going back to last week’s Accelerate Your Performance episode we highlighted that we hire people with the right skills to do the job.  Individuals improve their skills when they have the will to do so. The stories about Jeff and Dr. Emihovich are all about will. Teachers’ actions put the fire in their students’ bellies and the outcomes are life changing. 

 Also, in our last episode we talked about a performance curve. On the performance curve there are 60% of people in the middle.  This week, we will focus on about ½ of our work force – the middle.  Next week, we will focus on 20% of the workforce who are low to low/middle on the performance curve. 

 Let’s note a quick reminder.  All employees are expected to live the organizational values. In one of the episodes, I discussed the process that we use with organizations to create Standards of Practice to operationalize our values.  The standards promote how we expect people to work together and  interact with one another in the workplace. These standards are created by employees for everyone in the organization to follow. 

 In order to be a high performer, an individual not only lives but models the organizational values.  Middle performers tend to move in and out of living the values and need specific coaching and direction to keep them on track.  And, that’s okay. Usually, our lowest performers fail to live the organizational values, which has a negative effect on the work culture. And, that’s not okay. We’ll talk about low performers next week. 

 Here’s the key point when focusing on middle performers.  They depend on leaders to coach and support them and to create a workplace environment that considers the emotional aspect of work.  

 To understand the relevance of leadership, let’s reflect on the concept of The Elephant and the Rider.  And, remember, when I use the word leadership, I use it in the broadest sense. Everyone can be a leader in some way with others.

 Picture a rider on an elephant traveling along a path. Jonathon Haidt uses an analogy to explain the way people function in an organization.  He proposes that an elephant represents the emotional side of work and the rider represents the rational side. The rider is directing the elephant.  When I show this picture to people, I ask – if the elephant and the rider got into an altercation, who would win the fight?  And of course, people say the elephant would win. What’s the message? if we fail to consider the emotional side of our work, the likelihood of staying on the path to achieve results is low. 

 I heard Dan Heath speak at a conference on this topic and then read the book written by Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. 

 They write about the rider representing the rational side of our thinking. The rider plans, thinks and strategizes. To get the plan moving forward the rider has to motivate the elephant to move down the path. What makes this difficult?  First, if the path is overly complicated, the elephant may see too many obstacles ahead. Also, the elephant wants immediate gratification as she makes the journey. As the rider works to direct the elephant, the rider becomes exhausted. And, eventually may give up. 

 Our goal is to get the rider and the elephant to travel the path together.   The rider needs a clear and focused direction that is shared with the elephant so they both understand the benefits from traveling and getting to the end of a journey. The rider becomes the guide. The elephant feels that traveling the path is meaningful to her. The elephant understands how what she does helps with achieving results.  At some point, the elephant could have the will to travel the path with little guidance.  When a new path is needed, the elephant needs the help of the rider. Now, however, the elephant will quickly learn how to travel the path without as much guidance.

 ost of us grow up in the middle. In many ways, it’s a safe place to be. We don’t have to face too difficult of challenges. It’s comfortable because we don’t necessarily need to challenge ourselves.  On the other hand, being in the middle causes us to lose our confidence.  We see where we are in relation to others. Our lack of confidence to step up to the challenges may even shift us to a lower performance level.  We start spiraling down rather than stepping up.  Without help the downward spiral continues. 


So, as leaders, what do we do with middle performers to give them confidence in themselves to achieve and move up the performance curve? Here are five actions we can take.


1.  We stretch goals beyond people’s expectations.  

 John Hattie completed a study and found one factor that made the highest impact on student learning.  He found that students set goals they expect to achieve and then work to only rise to that level. We’ve all been students. I think this same tendency carries over to the workplace. The best leaders adjust employees’ expectations upward and show them what success looks like. 

 I am also reminded of Peter Senge’s notion of Creative Tension. In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Senge writes “The gap between vision and current reality is also a source of energy. If there were no gap, there would be no need for any action to move toward the vision. We call this gap creative tension.”  Think of stretching a rubber band, one end on the right hand and the other on the left. The tighter we stretch it, the more tension we feel.  

 As I mentioned before, I used to run races (mainly 5K and 10K runs).  Let’s say that I decide tomorrow, I want to run a race and I have 3 months to train. I want to run a 5K race in 32 minutes. I know for you runners, you are thinking that’s easy. For me not so much. That seems doable yet a little frightening to me. If someone said I would have to run the race in 30 minutes, I would be overwhelmed. That does not seem doable to me based on where I am with my endurance level. 

 My point – we have to start where the person is and expect improvements.  We start with enough tension to build motivation. 

 In summary, when we think of stretching people, our goal is to stretch to cause just enough tension to build energy.  If we overstretch, we cause too much anxiety and potentially halt any positive movement for fear of failure or not seeing an end goal that is achievable.  And, when we feel like we are overstretching, we loosen the rubber band until we feel it’s the right time to stretch it again.  One of the most important aspects of a good leader is to know how to manage with Creative Tension – knowing when to push and when to hold back and then to push again.


2.  We set small goals to help people accomplish a big goal. 

 When I work with organizations on goal setting, I find that they set aspirational goals.  There’s nothing wrong with having big aspirations as long as we set small ones that lead the way.  I find myself focusing people’s attention on setting challenging, yet doable goals.  Teams need to believe they can achieve the goal if they work with diligence, focus, and effort.  

 Every team member has an effect on the achievement of the organizational goals.  As we set individual goals in the same way – challenging yet doable – the employees see how their goals fit into the larger organizational picture. 

 Let’s think about my training to run a race.  My goal is to run a 5K at the end of 3 months in 32 minutes.  I enlist the help from a friend who is a good runner and can coach me. To achieve this, she helps me set weekly goals that map to the overall goal.  By achieving the small goals, I stay motivated and can also see how well I am tracking to the larger goal.  At the end of a month, I begin to see the end goal as a possible reality. If the reality seems too easy at the end of the month, I make the end goal more difficult.  Ahhh. Creative Tension.


3.  We celebrate and harvest small wins along the way.

 A good leader intentionally looks for small wins along the way to harvest and celebrate.  When we are in the middle and working to improve, every positive step counts. We can multiply the effect of that accomplishment when we openly celebrate the wins with the individual and others. 

 Back to me training for the race.  At the end of the first day, my coach may say something like, “I could tell you are focused on achieving this goal.  Your energy level and attitude gave you a great start. I am excited to work with you to achieve your goal.”  

 Even better, let’s remember the 3 to 1 principle we discussed in an earlier Accelerate Your Performance episode.  To get a positive result it takes 3 compliments to 1 criticism.  The heavier the struggle the more important this becomes. 

 Have you ever communicated with someone higher in the organization by starting with the wins and then the challenges to get the conversation started on the right foot?  And the first thing your leader does is look at the deficits and offer solutions.  What a drag and a demotivator.  That’s not how you envisioned the discussion occurring. Now you become defensive and less motivated to engage with your leader in the future. 

 This takes me to the next action leaders can take to instill confidence in middle performers. 


4.  We provide feedback to help people achieve their goals.


We captured the small wins, employed the 3 to 1 principle and now we provide feedback that helps the employee improve his performance.  For middle performers, I recommend - we provide one specific area of focus, talk about why this area is important, and how the improvement will help the employee. 

 As I continue to train for the 5K, my friend and trainer sees that I’ve reached a wall a month and ½ into my training.  She notices that I’ve not modified my approach to gain an extra minute of time. She has a recommendation to provide.  Now, she’s been focused on the 3 to 1 principle all along.  So, she is positioned to provide critical feedback to help me get over the wall.  She shares a recommendation, coaches me on how to proceed, guides me as I practice, gives more feedback, and celebrates my small successes as I execute a new strategy. 

 By following this process, individuals build confidence one small step at a time.  Also, the expectation is that over time, the employee will be less dependent and more self-reflective. Remember, we are coaching the elephant to travel down a path with less resistance and need for help.


5.  Finally, we celebrate with the team when big goals are achieved.  


Think of the difficult work that went into achieving the goal.  At this time, we celebrate with our teams by noting how people on our team accomplished the actions that helped our division achieve its goals. 

 On our team, every quarter we have a quarterly strategy session and a celebration time.  We have a ½ day all team strategy session and then an afternoon celebration. We have about 40 people on our education team.  I hold the celebration in “Frank’s Garage” – my dad’s famous garage in my mom’s and dad’s back yard. A thousand square foot building with a porch, kitchen, bathroom, large screen TV and an ice machine.  We enjoy each other over a shrimp and crawfish boil or good ole southern barbeque.  We enjoy each other’s company and whoop and holler to celebrate achieving goals. At times, some of us end the evening sitting around the fire telling stories about our life journeys with many laughable and fun moments. 

 It’s fun and reinvigorating to celebrate together – let’s don’t let these wonderful and memorable opportunities escape us. 


In summary, how best can we support middle, solid performers?


·     Stretch goals beyond people’s expectations.  

·     Set small goals to help people accomplish big goals.

·     Celebrate and harvest small wins along the way.

·     Provide feedback to help people achieve their goals.

·     Celebrate with the team when big goals are achieved. 



We’ve all been a middle performer at times in our lives.  This week reflect on a time when someone connected with you to help you become better.  It could have been a leader, a peer, a friend.  What did they do?  How did you feel? What was the outcome?

 Then, review the five ways we can support moving middle performance up.  Is there someone you can connect with and apply these five actions?  Find that person, connect with them, and make that difference for them this week.  

 At least ½ of the people who work in our organizations are solid middle performers. Without attending to them, we leave little room for our organizations to achieve excellence.  Our job as leaders and as peers is to work with some of our most critical teammates to accelerate their performance.  And for someone to work with all of us so that we can accelerate our performance. 


Thank you for tuning in to Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you on our next Podcast where we will continue our focus on individual performance along the performance curve.  I look forward to our time on What is a Low Performer? Have a great week.