by Kamran Rizvi
Kamran Rizvi came to Pakistan and pioneered the self-improvement and organisation development movement under the banner of KZR

“Push your foot firmly on the throat of mediocrity.”
In a Mercedes Benz ad.

Far from the sense of drudgery that the word ‘performance’ evokes for some, it is the very essence of wholesome living. Day after day; year after year; one thing is for sure, we must keep performing to survive and thrive. This holds true for everyone who cares to excel in business and in life. Whether you work in a multinational corporation, a state-owned enterprise, a government agency, or a non-profit, perform you must…and that too, in all dimensions of your life. 

Performance can also be seen as work, a word least understood in organizations. Indeed, is it perceived as just 'effort', hence the label 'workers' is given to people who are in the non-management cadre. To work means to direct your efforts to an end. This encompasses the essence of any manager's job, which is to invest energy in a particular direction in order to achieve desired goals.

To perform is to do; to act; and to accomplish, in all spheres of life. For example, surrendering our mental faculties in exchange for a good night’s sleep, is just as important as trying to maximize on all the opportunities we find or create in our personal, family, social and professional areas of our life, while awake. Rest and recreation, leisure breaks and entertainment, are all part of our performance repertoire. Realizing and leveraging upon this fact creates the kind of fulfilling life we admire…one that is full of meaning and purpose, and indeed fun!

The era of sloth and indolence is fast coming to an end, particularly for those who have had it very good for far too long. There has been a growing trend, in a variety of organizations over the last few decades, where people in big positions, drawing fat salaries and enjoying attractive perks that high office confers, have not been held to account. Greed has lead to gross excesses. Many examples of these keep coming to light, and several heads of corporations and senior government officials have been shamed in public as a result. 

The recent global economic meltdown illustrates how human failings, particularly of those in strategic positions, have had devastating consequences on billions of lives around the world. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System, was known for having the power to move markets. He described the stock market boom in the nineties as, "Irrational Exuberance." In an  interview, a CNN correspondent asked him, “What went wrong?” Greenspan simply said that human greed took over. During the interview, his expressions were sullen. He looked helpless. How unfortunate. Could he not see it coming?

Imbalances and disparities in rewards and compensation structures in the corporate world have caused much cynicism and bitterness amongst the rank and file in organizations. No one grudges executives and managers enjoying a handsome pay package, so long as they are seen to be taking full responsibility for the processes and outcomes in their assigned portfolio or domain. After all, pay is a function of responsibility an individual takes willingly. 

In tough times like these, it is sad to see heads roll, particularly lower down in the hierarchy. This fact becomes hard to swallow when you consider the efforts to re-engineer, right size or down-size an organization are triggered by blunders frequently made at the top. Well-known banking and automotive giants of the past have come to their knees and quite a number have been rescued by tax payers money. For instance, just over a decade ago, executives and employees in RBS became public servants. The British government stepped in to rescue the bank!

Seeking high levels of performance from employees and associates, in the absence of sound systems for accountability and transparency, is a proposition that is neither fair nor tenable. To speak of trust, openness and commitment is pure travesty in an environment that seeks to hide information and actively defends status quo. 

The prospect of being on a performance treadmill, if perceived narrowly, can feel extremely tortuous, when individuals find themselves losing control over what they do at work. Steps need to be taken to create a culture of empowerment. You are responsible to make this happen. By so doing you will provide relief to your people from unwanted stress, and communicate to them through your actions that coming to work is akin to going to a gym for workouts, where the output is fitness…physical, mental or social.

Much has to be done by people like you who are leading your organizations to create such a liberating paradigm, where superior levels of performances become the norm to achieve ever-increasing top-line and bottom-line results. This is what leadership teams are responsible for. Shareholders and other key stakeholders expect this and rightly so. 

Only people produce the results we desire. The human factor in any organization is its soul, mind and body. Therefore, the art is in knowing and doing that which helps you get the best out of them. The first step in this direction is for you and your managers to recognize that individuals perform a job to earn a living, just like you, but that this only represents a small part of a big pie of life! 

People perform to excel when they realize they are working in an environment that fosters growth and development of the whole person, instead of just paying attention to how well an individual performs tasks assigned. Caring for the overall  wellbeing of an individual is of the essence and this is achieved by keeping in mind their physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional health.  

Individuals perform at their best when they are cared for and their lives are in reasonable balance, i.e., when they are generally satisfied in all the key dimensions of their lives, personal, family, social and professional. Only when managers get involved and take interest and get to know their people well with the aim of helping them grow and succeed, will they obtain the performances that inspire in return. 

As mentors and coaches, managers can create a climate of support and trust. But this is a two-way street. Candour needs to be initiated by the manager, before expecting the same degree of openness from colleagues.

In a recent encounter with a manager, I requested him to list the names of all his direct reports. He promptly obliged by writing seven names. I then asked him to describe each individual’s vision or goal in a sentence. At first he looked puzzled, then smiled and said, “Well…urh…I think I can guess what they might be..!” There are far too many examples of such managers who remain oblivious of the real talents and aspirations of the people they are responsible for. With such pervasive ignorance, how can they be expected to groom, develop and utilize talent at their disposal fully? Little wonder that millions of people and their organizations suffer from continued mediocrity. Why is this so? Who is responsible for this pandemic of apathy? 

Isn’t it high time for management to wake up to its primary role of enabling everyone in their organizations to perform at their best? 

I recently came across an ad of Mercedes Benz, known for its engineering excellence, which aptly makes the point: "Push your foot firmly on the throat of mediocrity."