Focus on BOTH Performance AND Mastery: A Development Suggestion for Leaders

It happened to me again.

I cannot believe it caught me off guard, but it did…again.

A student I have been teaching in an executive coaching program asked for some time to talk with me. This student has been doing quite well in the course, but wanted to discuss an issue they were facing.

Usually when this happens the student has one of two types of concerns.

The first is that the work they are doing is not up to expectation and they want to know what to do about it.

The second is that they have told people they are in this coaching program and have received an inquiry about doing some work for a potential client.

This call was not one of the usual scenarios, and so it caught me a bit off guard.

“Dr. Livingston, I have never been a CEO or even led a team of more than five people. Why would anyone ever hire me as an executive coach? I have been doing very well in all my coursework and I really understand the concepts and the value that executive coaching can bring to an organization. However, I just do not feel qualified to do coaching at an executive level.”


I Am Curious

Have you ever received this type of question from folks in your organization?

It might not sound exactly the same, but the more I think about it the more prevalent I believe it is.

The basic root of the question is this:

“I am here and performed really well, and now I want to be there; how do I do it?

Some examples I have heard recently from clients I work with might be helpful:

  1. "I am in sales and have performed really well, what do I need to do to get promoted?”

  2. "I am a high performing charge nursel, what do I need to do to become a supervisor?”

  3. "I am a youth minister and performed really well, what do I need to do to get my own church?”

  4. “I am a production manager and performed really well, what do I need to do to become a plant manager?”

As I am listening to my student, it occurs to me that my clients have been talking about some very similar types of issues. What does a leader do when someone is performing really well and they deserve other opportunities in the organization?

I have found over the years that telling someone to just “keep up the good work” and good things will happen is both lame on my end and not very helpful to them.

Before I give a suggestion on how to work with someone who presents to you in this manner, I think there are some important assumptions to put on the table:

  • The person really has performed really well. If they have not, then they need to hear this from you and to get your thoughts on how they can improve performance.

  • There is opportunity to move the person now or in the future. If there is a new opportunity for them, then it is up to you to get them there and set them up for success.

  • The individual not only displays appropriate performance at the current role, but they have the necessary leadership ability to be successful at the next level. My preference here is that they have a perceived ability to perform two levels higher than their current level.

If all of these assumptions are true and the person is ready and deserving for new leadership opportunities, how will you help them focus on their development?

A Simple Suggestion

One thing that has helped me is to get them to focus on the idea of mastery in addition to performance.

Those who have a performance orientation tend to focus on that what is good enough to compete with others as the goal. In our society, performance is indicative of very short term thinking and the result can be either positive or negative. You are either better than others at what you do, which feels satisfying, or you are not, which feels discouraging.

Alternately, those with a mastery orientation take a longer term view of development. Learning, rather than competence, becomes the goal. Those with a mastery orientation focus on what is possible in their development. They think more about what they don’t know rather than showing others what they do know. A mastery development focus takes the person on a journey through their chosen field rather than to a destination of any particular organizational role.

Give It A Try

How can you help someone in your organization change the focus of their development from performance to mastery?

Notice I am not saying here to not focus on performance. Ensuring the person stays on task and accomplishes the goals is still important. Do not lose sight of  performance excellence.

The intention is to shift the thinking and the focus a bit from being competent to becoming an expert in their field.

What could they learn that they do not already know?

How could they innovate their current role?

Is there anything they could experiment with to try something a little different?

Having a mastery mindset often means asking an entirely different set of questions than those that are merely focused on performance.

If you give this a try with some folks on your team, I would love to hear from you. Drop me a comment below or send me an email. I am really interested in what this distinction looks like in your world.