Beyond the Talk: Why Only Performance Matters

“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.” — Mae West, American actress.

“Confidence… thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, and on unselfish performance. Without them it cannot live.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States.

Beyond the Talk: Why Only Performance Matters by Laura Stack #productivityIf talk got things done, humanity would already have colonies all over the solar system, and we’d probably be reaching for the stars. Instead, we all but gave up on manned spaceflight more than 40 years ago, and decided to send (relatively) cheap robotic probes to the planets instead. Not that they’ve been a waste; we’ve learned a lot. But our entire species is still living on one planet.

My point? Simply that with a few therapeutic exceptions, no amount of talking and planning matters if it’s not coupled with firm, decisive action. Harold Geneen, legendary CEO and President of ITT, hit the nail on the head when he pointed out, “It is an immutable law in business that words are words, explanations are explanations, promises are promises, but only performance is reality.”

If Geneen had run the space program, we might very well have colonies on the moons of Jupiter by now, because Geneen was a go-getter. He grew ITT from a firm with a respectable $765 million in annual sales in 1961 to a $17 billion multinational conglomerate by 1970—a 22-fold increase in just nine years. Born in England, he immigrated to the U.S. as an infant with his parents and took the American Dream by the horns as a young man. He began his rise at Raytheon in the 1950s, making his mark as an innovator who gave his division leaders an unprecedented level of freedom, before revolutionizing ITT from 1959 until his retirement in 1977.

The True Measure of Productivity

When you get right down to it, it doesn’t matter how many tiger team meetings you’ve attended, whether you’re ISO compliant, or that you got an enthusiastic thumbs up on your trust exercises during that last executive retreat. At best, those represent icing on the cake; they are nice to have, but they aren’t the true substance of performance. To use another analogy, they’re All-Star games, not the regular season contests that count toward the divisional pennant.

What matters in business is whether or not you and your team can consistently produce at a high level, meeting or exceeding your goals before reaching out for new ones. If not, something has broken your workflow process; repair it immediately. Without profitable productivity, and the bottom line dollars it brings in, your organization will not survive.

Recently, I read a speech presented by marketing legend David Ogilvy in the early 1960s at an advertiser’s convention in Paris. His point was essentially that traditional image advertising—TV commercials, billboards, and similar large-scale “shotgun” efforts that keep the company’s brand in front of the public—is mostly a waste of money. You can’t easily quantify it, and too often it falls prey to the advertiser’s desire to be artistic, cute, or funny.

On the other hand, direct response marketing (junk mail, classified ads, and the like) can account for every sale it makes and every dollar it earns. It’s performance-based and measurable. Traditional advertisers can give each other awards all they like, but those mean nothing if an accountant can’t sit down and tote up the income a specific campaign earned. Performance must be clearly measurable, or it doesn’t matter.

Recoupling Performance and Reality

You’ve heard it a hundred times: what you can’t measure, you can’t control. So as a leader, you’d best institute some way to measure not just team performance, but the performance of individual team members as well. You have many potential ways to go about it. Let’s consider a few here.

1. Balanced scorecards consist of standardized reports generated by software tools, tracking individual and group performance. While the reports can prove very useful, they depend on team members consistently and accurately reporting time spent on each task, and on you, the leader, paying close attention to reality as opposed to what they’re telling you.

2. Scoreboards and dashboards are automated software tools that provide aggregate data for select key performance indicators, often specific to the organization or task. For example, a company that makes cotton candy may want to know how many pounds each employee produces per hour, either precisely or on average. Other factors, such as sugar usage, tons shipped, and packaging used, also contribute to productivity levels.

3. Periodic performance reviews work especially well for individual employees, helping both you and them understand how well they’re doing on the productivity front, and what they need to improve upon. Most organizations focus on yearly reviews associated with performance raises or bonuses, but twice-yearly or quarterly reviews may prove more effective.

4. Business performance management (or project management) includes a series of activities intended to manage a team or group of teams as they work toward achieving a specific goal. It consists primarily of selection of goals, consolidation of relevant management information, and interventions intended to improve future performance.

5. Team dynamics reviews help you clarify how your team members work together. In addition to personal observation and coaching, tools like the Meyers-Briggs personality test and 360-feedback—where both superiors and subordinates critique an individual’s performance and work style—can provide valuable clues on how to interact with team members and forestall any potential problems.

Talk is Cheap

Actions speak louder than words. Performance and productivity always matter more than talking a good game, and should be rewarded and encouraged. If your team focus has fallen short, you can help your people get back on the ball by challenging them, inspiring them, affirming their worth, and knowing when to step in and be a true leader—someone who won’t let them fail. To reword Vince Lombardi’s famous saying, “Performance isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Convince yourself of that if you haven’t already, so you can use your own enthusiasm and passion to convince your team members.

Once you’ve gotten their buy-in and engaged their belief, try one or more of the measurement methods listed above to measure, maintain, and above all to control their performance. We’ve just scratched the surface of the possibilities here, but these should get you started.

What methods do you suggest? How do you track performance?



  1. Jeffrey Fischer says:

    Laura, what a timely article. The old saw about “walking the walk is all that counts” has never been more truer than today. It is interesting that so much talk goes on and is not even face to face that no work gets done and we continue to lose our edge in productivity and world leadership.

    • Jeffrey, I totally agree! It’s aggravating watching an email go back and forth and back and forth, when the issue could have been resolved if someone would have just picked up the phone or had an actual in-person “conversation” (gasp!). Laura


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