Tag Archive for: Articles by David Irvine

The 80/20 Rule of Leadership

There’s an old leadership theory of human behavior called the 80/20 rule, which states that 20% of the people in an organization produce about 80% of the results, while 80% produce about 20% of the results. If you manage sales people or volunteers or a team of employees where you expect results, then you are likely to find that these numbers – give or take 10% or so – to be accurate. In terms of the culture, about 20% if the employees create about 80% of the culture, and visa versa. This can happen at any level. I have seen front line service people, passionate about their work and about service, have a greater impact on the culture than a senior executive. The pull will always be toward the group or the individuals who are underachieving by your standards, or to attempt to change the ratio to prove to yourself that you can be a leader who can get the same results from all of your employees or volunteers.

What I’ve learned is not to mess too much with the ratio. It seems to be human nature. Even if you go and fire the 80% I’d bet that you will find that 80% of the remaining group will drift into being the under-performing group.

Rather than change the ratio, I’ve learned an important leadership principle to respond to the 80/20 rule: be conscious of spending 80% of your time with the 20% of the result producers, and 20% of your time with the under performers. Remember: the pull will always be toward to people who complain the most and who produce the least, so be careful not to get drained by the energy of this group. Your “top 20%,” on the other hand, are what I call your “critical employees,” the people who ultimately keep the organization running, the leaders (who may or may not have a title) at every level. Keep your primary focus on these people. Make sure they are recognized, supported, and duly rewarded, because they are critical to your future.

I was recently facilitating a leadership development program with a group of managers who run laboratories in our health care system. This was a group of scientists developing the people skills for building a strong organizational culture. As I drew white dots on a slide of an organizational chart representing these “critical employees,” a manager jumped up and said, “I know what those white dots are.They are the white blood cells, the cells of the immune system that defend the body against both infectious disease and foreign materials.” These cells, called Leukocytes, are found throughout the body, making up about 1% of the blood of a healthy person. We all concluded that, considering that the body only needs about 1% of its blood to fight off toxic substances in the body, leaders are fortunate that they have 20% of their employees to develop a healthy organizational immune system. If you want a healthy, vibrant workplace, take good care of your organizational immune system.

On another note, while thinking about white blood cells and immune systems, I came across the best article I have read yet on the fear of the H1N1 flu that is sweeping across our country. This article, was written by a good friend of mine, Brooks Tower, who is not a medical person, but he is a thoughtful person. While we all have to be concerned and take whatever precautions we can to do our part to prevent the spread of any kind of virus, reading this article may give you a new perspective on H1N1.

The Art of Building A Strong Culture

Learning to build a culture is an art, and you can master building a culture if you are willing to invest the time and energy. The practice of any art, whether it’s music, carpentry, or athletics, requires four practices: First is discipline. To become good at something, you must undertake it in a disciplined way. Anything you do only if “you’re in the mood,” may be a nice hobby, but you’ll never become a master at it.

The second practice is concentration. Paradoxically, what you need to concentrate on to build a culture – which is about connection to others – is self-reflection: connection with yourself. If you want a better culture where you live or work start by developing a mediation practice or a practice of mindfulness. Make it a daily discipline  to go inside and listen to your needs, desires, and values. Make time for a spiritual discipline to pray, or create a community of people around you to share your life with, or  simply take time to think and reflect. Make any one of these practices a concentrated discipline, and you will see a significant change in your culture in a matter of weeks.

The third practice is patience. Anyone who has ever tried to master an art knows that patience is necessary to achieve anything. Patience is difficult in a society that demands instant gratification and speed, but without patience and perseverance, mastery remains illusive. To build a culture we must be patient with ourselves and with others. There is no prescription or quick fix to a better culture. An apprentice in carpentry must learn to be patient while learning to plane wood. A piano student begins by practicing scales. The apprentice in the art of culture learns by being still and listening to the voice inside and then learning to overcome self-centeredness, realizing that building a better culture begins with building a better you.

A fourth practice is that you must make it a priority in your life. When you make culture – the environment and key relationships in your life – a priority and then create concentrated practices around connecting with yourself and others while maintaining patience, you won’t just have a better culture, a better environment to live and work in. You’ll have a better life.

What practices do you incorporate into your life and how does these practices impact the environments where you live and work?

Transforming An Organization Into A Community: A Leadership Vision

Leadership is about transforming your culture into a community. A community is a place where work is meaningful, not just menial, where you support people to be genuine contributors, not just “task doers,” where people are honestly valued, rather than used up, where you invite intentional conversations, not just superficial exchanges.

Communities are places where “units” are transformed into “neighborhoods”, where there is a sense of belonging, shared vision, pride, ownership, and a commitment to service; where “command performance” is replaced with a bone deep commitment to courageously seek participation.

Community is where paint-by-number management programs are replaced with a profound, yet simple respect for realness, honesty, and respect for the dignity of everyone, which in turn results in an authentic expression of the human spirit.

Fostering this kind of culture is akin to being a gardener. While results are paramount, culture can’t be legislated, controlled, motivated, or coerced. No plants ever grow better because you demand that they do so or because you threaten them. Plants grow only when they have the right conditions and are given proper care. Creating the space and providing the proper nourishment for plants – and people as well – is a matter of continual consideration and vigilance.

Three questions emerge from this vision for your consideration and reflection.

  1. Who is responsible for creating this kind of culture in your workplace?
  2. Who are the leaders in your organization?
  3. How do you go about transforming the culture of an organization?


The 80% Principle Of Leadership: Managing By Making Room

An astute executive passed along some good wisdom not long ago. “The problem with leaders today is that they expect 100% from their good people, and not enough from their poor performers.” This statement initially puzzled me, but after he explained what he meant, I was inspired.

Let me illustrate the principle with an example. This weekend I asked my sales manager to work three hours overtime to participate in a webinar on social media and give me an assessment of what the instructor was offering. I rarely ask Laurie to work overtime, but she jumped at the opportunity to go the extra mile. When considering the “80% Principle”, there are three potential scenarios when you ask an employee to go the extra mile. If you are stretching people to the max, expecting 100% from them all the time, pushing them to do more with less, thus demanding that they are on 100% of the time, and then ask them to take on an additional project that requires overtime, you have no room for the additional request. In this case they will probably do it for you, but likely with either resentment or stress or both. And if you have been expecting your good people to give 120% and then ask them to work overtime on a project, they likely start looking elsewhere for a job (if they haven’t already).

The alternative is to give them some room on a day-to-day basis. Don’t stretch them to the maximum. Only expect 80% so there is some space, some room for creativity, innovation, engagement, fulfillment, or connection. You will also likely find that when you only expect 80% from your best people, you’re going to get 100% anyway. But that additional 20+% comes from within them, not from you. This kind of relationship breeds commitment and loyalty from those you depend on. Laurie is a part of this third scenario. I expect 80%, she gives 100%, and is always willing to go to 120% when the need arises. The second part of this formula has to do with underachievers, those who are succeeding, but at less than 80% of their capacity. It is important to get tougher with these people. Don’t ignore them. You get tougher through clearer expectations. Fit people; don’t fix people. Get people into the right roles and then get them to 80%, not 100. But if, through coaching and support, this doesn’t work, then help them move on in their career.

Three actions:

  1. Track your own energy level. Take a careful inventory of yourself: How stretched do you feel? How much room is in your work life (or personal life) to slow down, be creative, think, connect – with your staff, your colleagues, your customers? Have the courage to respectfully negotiate for some space in your work life to express what matters most. If you are stretched to the max, you will convey tension in all your relationships.
  2. Have a conversation with your team members about how stretched they feel. Ask your direct reports or those you serve if there is any room in their work life. Negotiate respectfully for some space.
  3. Take an inventory of your direct reports who are operating at less than 80% capacity, and have the courage to face this. Be sure you have done everything you can to offer support to those within your stewardship. Have the conversation. Bring clear accountability agreements into your relationships. They must have high standards, clear expectations and ways to measure results, support requirements, and consequences. People need two things from their boss. They need to know you care, and they need performance measures. Be tough on people, be clear with people, but do it with love. No one ever takes pride in doing something easy.


From Performance Management To Success Management: A New View of An Old System

When I am asked to work with an organization to help improve their performance management system, my first step is to have leaders look at the request differently. If they want a better process for managing expectations and getting a grip on results, while at the same time making it engaging and meaningful, then “performance” management is a limited goal. In today’s workplace, the aim is not so much performance management as it is success management: creating the conditions that ensure both results and passion.

Following are seven conditions for success management. The goal is to turn these conditions into instinctive behaviors in your culture. But until they become established habits, written agreements can be helpful to ensure clarity, focus, and energy.

  1. Connection
    I learned years ago, in my first career as a family therapist, that the secret to parenting is not what a parent does but rather who the parent is to a child. Great leaders and teachers understand that when others are drawn to seek contact with you as a trusted advisor rather than simply as “boss,” you have earned the credibility to influence – with or without a title. All the leadership skills in the world will never compensate for a lack of connection.
  2. Self-Assessment
    Before attempting to “evaluate” others and their performance, it is important to ask people to assess themselves. “How do you feel about the results you are achieving?” “What do you need to do raise the bar for yourself?” These are questions about working with people, rather than over people. You will only want to “evaluate” others and their performance as a last resort.
  3. Authentic Expression
    What engages people is a connection to their passion, purpose, and values: authentic expression. When you are given the chance to express your unique talents in the service of others, you lose track of time and create abundance in your life and the lives of others. If work doesn’t provide both personal and financial growth, you’re wasting far too much of your life on it.
  4. Accountabilities
    Results are the name of the game, both in organizations and in life. Mutually negotiated accountabilities are a statement of quantifiable promises to the people who depend on you and the fulfillment of those promises. Accountabilities create a clear, mutual understanding of what needs to be accomplished and what will be accomplished: from activities to results.
  5. Support Requirements
    Support requirements are the accountabilities you require from others to ensure that you can fulfill your promises. These include the human, financial, technical, or organizational resources one can negotiate for and draw upon to deliver the expected results. Support requirements lock people into an accountable relationship.
  6. Consequences
    Consequences specify what will happen – both positive and negative – when you fulfill your promises. This could include financial or psychological rewards, different job assignments, and natural consequences tied into the overall mission of an organization. Consequences are a statement of what is important to you, considering what is reasonable and respectable in your current environment.
  7. Follow-Up
    How will your agreements to each other be maintained as significant, relevant, flexible, meaningful, and engaging over time? How will you hold yourself and others accountable? How often will you review it, and with whom? Far too many performance review programs are make-work projects that become “shelf-development” instead of self-development.” Take a brief inventory of where you stand on these conditions for success management. They can be applied to a business partner, direct reports, colleagues, clients or customers, or even yourself.

I’d love to hear about your conditions for success in building a more engaged and focused success management system or how you have used these conditions in an authentic and powerful way.