Category Archives: Insights

“Authenticity, honesty, and personal voice underlie much of what’s successful on the Web.”
Author of The Cluetrain Manifesto
Online business meeting

“Virtual presence is problematic, but that doesn’t mean that the fundamental skills no longer apply.”

Ladies and gentlemen… your attention please…

Impact, Charisma and Presence are essential qualities in a Senior Executive. If a leader wants to influence peers, enthuse employees, or inspire confidence in regulators, it is vital that they express themselves fully and with a sense of conviction. Presence, then, is a key attribute that effective leaders possess; one that enables them to motivate others.

It is hard enough to build rapport and demonstrate gravitas when working with people face to face, but when trying to do that via a laptop screen many additional difficulties arise. Overcoming those challenges takes hard work and commitment to learning new skills.

Start with the fundamentals of Impact and Presence

Virtual Presence is problematic, but that doesn’t mean that the fundamental skills no longer apply. The basic techniques are still as central to engaging effectively with people as they ever were. Those core skills have a long history. The ancient Greeks highly valued public speaking and over 2,000 years ago Aristotle identified “the three persuasive appeals” that combine together to make a powerful argument that inspires people to act, they are:

  1. Ethos: being credible as a speaker: demonstrating expertise; being thought of as trustworthy and knowledgeable
  2. Pathos: building emotional connection to the audience through establishing common ground or linking to key values
  3. Logos: having logical arguments supported by data, facts and analysis

Much of what is taught today in respect of presence goes back to these
writings on rhetoric (or the art of persuasion) by the ancient Greeks.

For example, in their June 2012 HBR article Antonkis, Fenley and Leichti on Learning Charisma, note that while leaders can pressure people to do as they ask because they have the power to reward or punish employees, it is the ability to demonstrate charismatic leadership that really inspires people to give of their best. They go on to highlight twelve ancient rhetorical techniques as being especially powerful for modern leaders. These include…

Rhetorical Questions to engage people e.g. “So, what does good performance look like?”

Expressing Moral Conviction (setting standards for right or just behaviour) e.g. “This quality problem is damaging our relationships with our customers, it’s our issue to resolve and we need to take ownership for fixing it as a group.”

Reflecting the Group’s/Audience’s Sentiments – even when they are negative – as they show empathy and help the group to ‘connect’ with the speaker e.g. “I know how disappointed and upset you are about this decision…it is a bitter pill to swallow after all your hard work…”

Setting Challenging Goals – giving people a clear, compelling objective to focus on e.g. “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon”, John. F. Kennedy (May 1961)

Two issues with Remote Executive Presence

When working remotely there are two main issues that need to be addressed when demonstrating Ethos, Pathos and Logos:

  1. Building Trust. Getting a ‘connection’ with people has a lot to do with eye contact, facial expressions (in particular smiling) and open body language, but these things are hard to do in a virtual environment.
  2. Establishing Credibility. Power gestures, small talk, looking professional, and demonstrating knowledge all contribute to establishing a professional presence, but this can be ‘tricky’ when trying to do it through a laptop screen.

So, if a ‘face to face’ meeting is like a 3D theatre play with actors facing a live audience, ‘in the flesh’, then a virtual meeting is like a 2D TV show, with a presenter, sitting in a studio, and talking into a camera. So, successful Executive Presence in this context, in part, involves adapting the techniques used by presenters on the evening news to build trust and establish credibility remotely.

Look the part – master your production values to establish credibility

As noted above, a key element of Executive Presence in a Virtual World, is to appreciate the importance of looking and sounding professional on the screen.
This involves:

  1. Looking good on screen. Adjust your lighting levels to create a clear, sharp image. Make sure your light source is coming from behind your camera i.e. from in front of you. Use the Touch Up My Appearance and Adjust for Low Light, features to fine tune your image and consider buying a professional photographer’s lamp. Frame yourself as a head and shoulders shot; don’t have too much ‘empty space’ above your head.
  2. Curating your background. Look at your video preview and clear any clutter in camera view; set up a professional looking background, or have an appropriate virtual background e.g. maybe use your company’s logo.
  3. Sounding good. Test your laptop speaker and microphone and use the “Suppress Background Noise” feature. Think about buying (and using) an external microphone that blocks out background noise.

Make friends with the camera – to build trust

Positive body language is a key aspect of demonstrating charisma; especially adopting an upright, relaxed posture, coupled with steady eye contact and a warm smile.

What this means for Virtual Presence is that eye contact has to be simulated by talking into the camera (and not to the person’s image on the screen). So, when talking focus on the camera light and imagine that you are looking at a person and chatting with them as you do so. This feels very ‘odd’ at first but in time you do get used to it, so persevere. It helps to lift up the camera (by using a stand or stack of books) so that the lens is at eye level.

Also, sit up straight on your chair (don’t slouch), and when not talking give active listening signals such as head nods, smiles and (maybe) the occasional thumbs up sign. Act as if you are on show at all times, which you are! Actively manage your reactions and expressions so as to demonstrate courtesy to all people at all times i.e. no eye rolling, or head shaking.

You can’t use gestures as much on-line as you do in a face-to-face setting (it makes you look frenetic), but they are still an important part of the communication mix, and when used to highlight key points they are very effective e.g. doing a ‘two handed chop’ gesture to emphasise a message or statement.

Have a script; make sure you have a message that’s worth listening to!

In their book Leadership Presence Halpern and Lubar make a link between what is required of a top performing senior executive and the actor’s craft. They note that actors don’t expect to be ‘born’ with charisma, but train, using specific ‘drills’, to be able to capture an audience’s attention and to have people focus completely on them.

In addition, they also note that a good performance based on a poor script doesn’t impress anyone: presence captures people’s attention and gets them to take the speaker seriously, but the content of the message must also be compelling.

So effective leaders don’t only make their point with energy and conviction (pathos), they also have something to say that is worth listening to (logos). They plan what they want to say, making sure it’s logical and mentions facts and figures that convinces people of the correctness of the case they are making. This applies not only to a formal ‘key note’ speech, but also to more everyday comments, such as making a point in a meeting. Plus, again like a good actor, they rehearse what they are going to say, so it comes across fluently, without undue hesitation or the appearance of doubt.

Putting it all together

Virtual Executive Presence starts with understanding the classic fundamentals of capturing attention and being convincing, namely; Ethos, Pathos and Logos.

It’s then a question of coming to terms with the media and accepting we are working in a TV style format and acting accordingly i.e. by getting a grip on the production values and becoming comfortable presenting into the camera.

Finally, it’s about taking the time to script and rehearse what you want to say so that you are making points that are clear, logical and supported by facts and figures.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how effective you are at working via your laptop screen. What messages are you sending through your production values and body language? Consider what changes you might make.


Read this Short article giving examples of Ethos, Pathos and Logos in speeches


Watch… this YouTube clip (5 minutes) on 6 body language tips for conducting a video call


Take a look at our Executive Presence in a Virtual World programme (an intensive remote training course, for a maximum of six delegates per programme).


Or maybe review our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services to get some tailored guidance on developing your personal impact in the virtual space.


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK)
or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And we end with a quote from the Economist, Author and Expert in Talent Management, SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT…

“There are six elements of gravitas critical to leadership: grace under fire, decisiveness, emotional intelligence and the ability to read a room, integrity and authenticity (people don’t like fakes), a vision that inspires others, and a stellar reputation.”

“Self-love is not so vile a sin as self-neglect.”
Girl in a hammock with laptop

Paying Attention to Your Needs

At all times, but especially in times of adversity and stress, it’s vitally important to take the time to look after your own wants, needs and desires. Burn out, fatigue and depression (or if not depression, then certainly ‘low mood’) can very easily creep up on you if you’re not actively looking after your own sense of well-being.

What is self-care?

Raphailia Michael writing in PsychCentral says self-care is, “any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health”.

Self-care involves taking time to pay attention to your own sense of well-being and putting your needs first, at least occasionally. Not in a narcissistic way, but in a manner that makes sure you are focusing on your own physical and mental health.

Self-care activities help to reduce anxiety, improve mood and build good relationships. It is a vital component of avoiding fatigue, sickness and burn out.

Self-care actions include:

  • knowing what your limits are
  • finding a way to decompress throughout your day
  • giving some thought to addressing persistent problems
  • committing to changing any difficult work situations that may arise
  • spending time with loved ones
  • getting regular medical check-ups

Attending to the basics

Self-care starts with the obvious 4 core physiological factors:

  1. Breathing properly
  2. Sleeping well
  3. Healthy diet
  4. Regular exercise

If you’ve ever had a bad night’s sleep (and who hasn’t) then you know what tiredness can do to your mood, attitude and decision-making capabilities.

Similarly, Junk Food, Alcohol, Tobacco and all the other things you might (or might not) try from time to time will, in excess, hamper your ability to feel good and get things done.

Ditto exercise; your body was made to move and there is a minimum of effort needed to keep the system in good working order. The category of exercise includes the requirement to maintain a good posture. Poor body alignments, caused by hours spent hunched over a steering wheel, phone or laptop can (over time) cause pain, immobility and low mood, so any tendency to slouch, adopt a ‘text neck’ etc. needs to be actively countered.

Of the 4 core factors the least focused on by most people is the one that’s top of the list – a strong breathing process. When you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs, and you will notice that your lower belly rises. This fully oxygenates the whole body and promotes a sense of well-being, boosts energy levels and aids healing. Shallow breathing, on the other hand, causes fatigue and creates a sense of anxiety. As you will be breathing all day, every day, for the rest of your life, the positive impact of a strong breathing process (and the negative impact of a poor one) should not be underestimated.

There are formal breathing systems that you can study e.g. the Ujjayi breath of yoga practitioners, Buddhist Whole Body breathing techniques and the popular Wim Hoff Breathing method, that’s based on Tibetan Tummo Meditation. However, it’s enough for most people just to go on-line and read up on the basic principles for diaphragmatic breathing.

Ten-minute decompression

A key self-care strategy is to take 3 or 4 short breaks each day (of about ten minutes each) to ‘decompress’ and shrug off any stress that’s building up in the body. These micro breaks are (of course) in addition to taking a proper lunch break, one that takes you away from the computer, phone and social media.

These breaks can involve anything that helps you to re-energise yourself; and what works well for one person can be quite different from what works for someone else. The two main things to bear in mind are that (a) you are aiming to ‘de-compress’ and not cram extra activities into the day, (b) find something that works for you and your life style. So Sudoku or stretching, a coffee with your partner or contemplating nature, listening to the radio or reading a poem – the choice is yours!

You might like to know, however, that the research clearly shows that one of the most effective self-care strategies is to meditate daily, as it boosts mental health, sharpens attention and improves relationships. So, consider engaging in daily meditation, of whatever flavour you like, whether that be Mindfulness, Transcendental, Taoist, Vipassana, Zen etc.

Engaging in hobbies and pastimes

Having an interest that is both outside of work and also the immediate home environment, is a very powerful element of a self-care routine. There are thousands of possible options, it’s just a question of each person finding the ‘right’ one for them, be that gardening, horse riding, scuba diving, motor bike riding, yoga, dancing, running, photography, book club, choir, watching or playing team sports etc.

It also makes sense for couples to do a shared activity as a way of strengthening and enhancing their relationship. It’s also important to try new things from time to time, in order to maintain a sense of adventure and avoid boredom. Of course, pastimes don’t have to be expensive or time consuming, simple daily activities work just fine as a self-care activity e.g. hiking, seeing a friend, walking the dog, reading a book, going to the cinema, or out for a meal.

News Hygiene and ‘Digital Sunsets’

Most people are bombarded by emails, digital messages, and social media updates, and that’s very disruptive to a calm, centred mind, consequently it’s vital to take control of your ‘digital footprint’ by…

  1. Adopting good News Hygiene; stop all push notifications and alerts (especially news updates and email notifications). Pick one (or maybe two) trusted news sources and look at them just once a day.
  2. Enforcing a Digital Sunset; pick a time (say) 6.30pm and switch off all emails, and all work communications. Disconnect from social media (Facebook, Instagram etc.) and focus on your home and social life until the following morning.

Gratitude Journaling

Gratitude Journaling (i.e. writing down a list of things that you are grateful for) sounds like one of those things that wouldn’t work to boost self-care, but actually does.

It seems that by taking the time to reflect on what’s going well and/or what you’ve enjoyed and/or appreciated, focuses the mind on the good things in life and boosts optimism. The ‘good’ things can be big e.g. finishing a project, or small e.g. watching a sunset as you drive home from work, a coffee with a friend, a compliment from a work colleague, but they all contribute to building optimism and positivity.

The initial study into this topic by Emmons and McCullough (2003, Counting Blessings Vs. Burdens) asked participants to write down 5 things they were grateful for, once a week for 10 consecutive weeks. The result? An extraordinary 25% boost in happiness reported by the participants as against their pre-journaling rating.

Putting it all together

JournalingYou can be of little help to family and friends, and of little value to an employer, if you are jaded, weary, run down, or washed out. Taking the time to prioritise self-care activities means that you can experience a level of joyfulness and satisfaction in your personal life that’s pleasing and uplifting, while also giving you enough energy to be supportive of others. So, take the time to decompress, enjoy your hobbies, meditate and take a moment each day just to notice something you are grateful for.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how good you are at taking care of yourself – do you need to make any changes?


Read this (long but interesting) article on Self Care 101 by Dr Maria Barratta in Psychology Today


You may be interested in how we can help people achieve more balance with our half-day Emotional Intelligence programme.


If you have someone that you would like to get Executive Coaching, then we’d be happy to help with that as well.


Or gives us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And finally, remember…

“Self-care is giving the world
the best of you, instead of
what’s left of you!”

The Do’s and Don’ts of Making Working From Home a Positive Experience

“In teamwork silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly”
Man working from home

People working remotely for the first time need a proper induction programme

Working remotely (and especially working from home) requires the acquisition of a specific set of skills if it’s going to be a success for the company and the employee. There are many hazards that await those new to home working (some obvious and some hidden) that can lead to people feeling stressed, uncertain about their duties, and lacking motivation.

This article covers the key messages that Line Mangers should review with their staff when they are new to the experience of home working in order to avoid these potential pitfalls. As the title suggests, it covers guidance on the do’s and don’ts of making working from home a positive experience. At its heart is the concept that new Remote Workers should have a Structured Remote Working Induction/Coaching Programme that helps them to thrive when working virtually.

Naturally, any suggestions need to be tailored to the needs of each specific employee and take account of the corporate culture/procedures, but there are a number of ‘standard’ messages that are worth covering.

The eight key elements involved in developing a Structured Remote Working Induction Programme for a new Remote Worker are:

  1. Making the most of the experience
  2. Dealing with isolation
  3. Getting the set up right
  4. Being red hot on Cyber Security
  5. Transition Rituals
  6. Agreeing House Rules
  7. Time Blocking
  8. Working from home with young children

Let’s look briefly at each of these factors in turn…

Making the most of the experience

Working from home means that workers have to improvise (depending on what’s going on at home) and juggle their work hours accordingly, which can be tricky. However, it also allows people to flex what they are doing to take the maximum advantage of being in the home environment. So, no reason not to take a few minutes off to play with the kids, or put some laundry in the washing machine, or mow the lawn, or have a coffee with your mum, or schedule home deliveries for during the day etc.

So, good managers should encourage staff to consciously think about how to gain from the flexibility that remote working brings e.g. What to do with time gained from not commuting into work? Take an early morning yoga class? Maybe go for a run at the end of the day?

Dealing with isolation

One potential downside of home working is the loss of social contact it brings. This can lead to feelings of isolation and sometimes anxiety.

To counteract this, managers should schedule at least a weekly catch up call with their remote employees (and for the first couple of weeks of remote working those ‘catch up’ calls should probably be daily).

New Home Workers should also be encouraged to schedule daily catch up/check in calls with colleagues to replicate (albeit imperfectly) corridor conversations/ water cooler chats.

In addition, managers should encourage new Home Workers to:

  • Get out of the house at least once a day e.g. walk to the shops, stop and chat to a neighbour.
  • Work outside the home for part of the day e.g. spend some time working from a local coffee shop, networking space, or sitting on a park bench.
  • Think about attending local networking events as a way of building a support network. Or maybe join a local club or association to boost levels of social contact e.g. a book club, a netball team etc. or take a night school class.

Getting the ‘set up’ right

It is easier to work from home if the employee can create a physical space that is conducive to concentration and focus. Managers need to have a conversation with their people about how they are going to handle this aspect of their work.

The ideal thing (obviously) is to have a dedicated ‘office’, a converted spare bedroom or an ‘office shed’ in the garden. People can work on the kitchen table if they have to, but they should be able to put everything away at the end of each working day e.g. have a work cupboard, or a chest/crate that they can put their laptop and papers in. That way staff can make a clear distinction between work time (and work spaces) and home time (and home spaces) as the two things are kept physically separate.

There should also be a discussion about how to follow the appropriate Health and Safety protocols e.g. making sure each staff member has good lighting and a work position that won’t result in RSI or a strained neck etc.

Furthermore, it is also important to make sure that they have the right tools for the job, e.g. an excellent WIFI connection, headset and microphone, an ergonomic chair and (maybe) a separate monitor, plus a table at the right height (and don’t let people work on the sofa or in bed!)

Make a particular point of encouraging each employee to have good posture; it’s very easy to slump or slouch over a laptop or phone, leading to neck, back and shoulder pain. Some managers like to suggest that people go on You Tube and find a set of simple stretches and posture exercises that they can do 3-4 times a day to avoid those physical issues occurring over time.

Being red hot on Cyber Security

Cyber Security is of crucial importance at all times and in all contexts. It is of particular concern, however, when working from home for the first time when best practice procedures may not already be in place. Good security is a matter of following all the standard security protocols, namely:

  • Make sure each employee has a strong password on their Router and any WIFI connections, ensure anti-virus is in place and fully updated, and encryption tools are installed.
  • Check all security software is up to date (privacy tools, add-ons for browsers and other patches need to be checked regularly).
  • Discuss the need to have a back-up strategy and make sure that employees remember to do it

Transition Rituals

A Ritual is a series of actions performed in a set sequence. Rituals can be religious, community, legal or personal in nature.

A Transition Ritual is a highly specific behaviour that is done at the same time every day (or on specific days of the week) in order to psychologically move from one mood, or mode, or type of thinking into another one.

They are particularly important when home working because, surrounded by all the artefacts of a personal life, there is a need to deliberately make the move from ‘home’ mode to ‘work’ mode and back again.

When people don’t use Transition Rituals they often find it hard to get going in the morning and/or let work activities bleed unhelpfully into their personal time in the evening e.g. checking emails over the dinner table. The ‘rituals’ someone chooses (and many people have at least some that they are using already) are a matter of individual preference e.g. some people get dressed in specific ‘work’ clothes, or start the day with a coffee in the garden as a primer for work, or meditate for ten minutes, or pack/ unpack the crate that they keep their laptop and work papers in etc. The main thing is for the manager to explicitly coach employees on developing the ‘Transition Rituals’ that are right for them.

It is worth noting that Rituals can be positive, negative or neutral in their impact. Some ‘negative rituals’ to think about making sure employees avoid when home working include; ‘snacking’, or generally using food-based rewards to punctuate the day; not getting dressed, until late in the day; not going outside for breaks but staying tied to the laptop!

Agreeing House Rules

If an employee lives with house mates or a partner and/or has children, it may be worth suggesting to them that they sit down as a group and agree some ‘House Rules’ for how to share the space together.

The idea is to avoid the irritation that comes from things like people playing loud music, or bursting into the room when you are in the middle of a call with the CEO, or arguments about who is supposed to be looking after the kids. So, one House Rule might be to suggest to older children that they won’t shout at the top of their lungs when they want something, but will quietly walk to the work area and see if you are on a call before talking.

Of course, House Rules, are a two-way process and employees should appreciate that flat mates and family may well have their own thoughts about what some of those rules should be e.g. no work calls after hours, giving your partner/family your undivided attention when you’re not working etc. Naturally, they should be coached to accept any reasonable suggestions from the people they are sharing space with.

Time Blocking

Having a formal work schedule is a key success factor when home working because there are few naturally occurring events to structure the day e.g. there are no colleagues around or commuting etc. to give shape to the day.

Time Blocking is a time management technique that simply involves listing the tasks someone wants to do and then allocating a specific time to do them. Using this system, every minute of the working day is assigned a task e.g.

09.00am – 10.00am Task X
10.00am – 10.30am Task Y
10.30am – 10.45am Coffee Break
10.45am – 11.15am Contingency: deal with unexpected tasks
11.15am – 12.00 am Team Meeting (Zoom conference)

Of course, the schedule can be modified in the face of ‘events’, and some of the estimates of how long it takes to do a task will be wrong; so there may well be a gap between the plan and the actual work done each day, but that is perfectly fine. The aim isn’t to do everything on the list but to provide a ‘shape’ to the day that will maximise productivity.

Consequently, managers should encourage people new to home working to adopt this process.

Working from home with children

Working from home when children are in the house (especially those of pre-school age) can be especially challenging. They will, naturally, demand attention and their needs will have to be attended to. There are, however, some strategies that are commonly used to cope with this situation and the manager should run through these options with employees with young families…

First and foremost (and easily forgotten) is to just enjoy having them around. Take short ‘micro breaks’ from work to play with them and (if they are really young) make the most of any nap times (theirs not yours).

Have a written schedule that balances your family and work commitments (e.g. use the Time Blocking technique).

Agree who will do what and when in terms of child care (i.e. as part of establishing the House Rules).

If you can afford it, hire a babysitter, child minder, or use play groups to let you focus during a set block of time each day e.g. 9am to 1pm. Some lucky people can also get Grandparents involved in the childcare process.

Think about having planned activities to occupy the kids; these will be age dependent of course, but include things like having colouring books, toys, videos and games etc. available for them to play with.

Putting it all together

Helping people who are new to Remote Working (and especially home working) is about making sure that the manager goes through a structured induction/coaching process on the do’s and don’ts of home working. The factors to cover include; making the most of the experience, proactively avoiding the feeling of isolation, Transition Rituals and the Time Blocking technique.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how you are coaching employees who are new to remote working. Are you doing enough to support them? Have you got a structured induction process in place? What changes might you make?


Read this short article on how to avoid employees feeling isolated when they are working from home


Watch… this 10 minute-long video on Time Blocking


Consider signing managers up to our half-day Managing Remote Teams workshop, run either as a face to face session, or as a Virtual Training Event


If you’re a senior executive, maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, or our Remote Coaching Programme, would be a useful option for helping you improve your skills?


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK)
or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And finally, a quote by the Management Consultant and author
Larry English…

“Most anyone can learn to be a great virtual employee. The top skills to learn are setting healthy boundaries between your work life and personal life and building relationships virtually.”

How to Find and Develop Top Performers

“Excellence is an art won by training”
understanding superior performance

Top companies hire great people

What makes someone really good at something? Whether that ‘something’ be leadership, or management, or selling, or music, or maths etc.?
How can the capabilities of top performers be analysed and codified so that they can be taught to others and/or be selected for during a hiring process?
This is a question that’s of concern to anyone who wants an organisation full of high performing people.

There are three aspects to answering this question:

  1. The first part of the answer is about the natural talent someone has
    i.e. the nature vs. nurture debate.
  2. Then training is also clearly a factor in developing top performers.
    This is all about ‘practise making perfect’.
  3. There is also the matter of the specific behaviours that those top
    performers engage in that make them stand out from the crowd.
    There are three methodologies that are of particular interest in this
    field; (i) Behavioural Analysis, (ii) Positive Deviance and (iii) Competency

So, let’s briefly look at the biology of success, the role of training, and we can then explore the three methodologies that can be used to uncover expert behaviours…

Nature vs Nurture

Clearly, part of what leads to elite levels of performance, is an appreciation of the genetic factors involved in getting outstanding results. For example, in the same way that some people grow to be above average height, some are born with the potential for much higher than average IQ, and so can perform better at intellectual tasks than their peers.

Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine shows that elite athletes who excel at endurance sports lack a gene (IL-15R-alpha) that causes muscle fatigue, meaning that they can run for much longer than ‘normal’ people who have the gene.

Also, average eyesight, as measured using the Snellen chart method, is rated as 20/20. Most US professional baseball players, however, have 20/12 vision or better, which means that they can see things at a distance of 20 feet that most people can only see when it is 12 feet away. So, having excellent visual acuity is necessary (though not, of course, sufficient) in order to be able to play major league baseball.

When looking for the most extreme (or elite levels) of performance these biological factors (such as IQ, eyesight, lung capacity, dexterity etc.) should be measured and selected when making hiring decisions, because without them people physically can’t hit the very highest attainment levels.

Practise makes perfect

Part of becoming a top performer is also about the training someone gets. Even with an abundance of natural talent some training is required to reach the highest levels of performance and with the correct coaching many people (not just the ultra-gifted) can reach a very high standard.

So, it has long been established that (what psychologists call) Deliberate Practise, is a vital component to achieving superior results. Deliberate Practise consists of

  • breaking a skill down into a number of tasks
  • being briefed on how to do a specific task
  • attempting to do it
  • getting prompt and informative feedback on how you did
  • repeating the task until it can be done well
  • moving on to the next task in the series

Being able to engage in this process (especially where a complex skill like learning a language, running a P&L account, or playing the violin is concerned) requires a considerable amount of both time and money. So, businesses need to consider (i) who they invest in, and then (ii) having well-structured development programmes to bring out people’s full potential; programmes that focus in on those skills that really mark our higher levels of attainment in a given area.

Three Methodologies for identifying Expert Behaviours

The three methodologies we’ll look at for highlighting ‘what specifically’ experts do that is different from the average person are:

  1. Behavioural Analysis
  2. Positive Deviance
  3. Competency Profiles

Behavioural Analysis; The Difference that makes the Difference

Between 1968 and 1972 a group of researchers (including Neil Rackham and Peter Honey) worked with managers at BOAC (now British Airways) to identify the communication behaviours of expert managers. They developed a coding system, called Behavioural Analysis (BA) to highlight what behaviours managers engaged in during meetings e.g. summarising, asking questions, giving information, supporting others etc. They observed hundreds of meetings within BOAC, collected data and (importantly) also gave the participants feedback on what they noticed so they could alter their behaviour. As part of this work they uncovered behaviours that distinguished the best managers from the rest of the pack. These included the observation that good managers:

  • Check people have understood them (less effective assume they’ve understood them)
  • Go to their boss with proposals (less effective go with problems and difficulties)
  • Set specific objectives (less effective set general objectives and vague standards)

BA and expert negotiation skills

Behavioural Analysis was then extended into a wide range of topics including, selling, negotiation and management of social care teams, and the output was then used to highlight expert behaviours across a range of activities.

For example, as a result of observing some 10,000 real life sales meetings and spotting the difference between good and average sales people the well-known SPIN selling process was created. That same database was also used to identify the behaviours of outstanding negotiators. Some points of interest from that study include the observation that Expert Negotiators:

  • Summarise twice as often as average negotiators.
  • Are much less likely to use ‘irritators’ (phrases that annoy the other person and provoke defend/attack behaviour) than their average counterparts, that is they avoid words like fair, reasonable and generous as in; ‘this is a very fair offer, you should take it’.
  • Are more likely to initially respond to a proposal from the other side with a question, rather than a rejection or immediate counter offer.

Understanding these behaviours, and then activity seeking to observe them as part of role play, or in a real-life meeting, forms the basis for identifying/training/coaching top performers. Thus, BA is an excellent method for developing management, sales, negotiation, problem solving and presentation skills.

The innovative power of Positive Deviance

What to do when faced with a really difficult situation or problem? Especially if you only have a small budget to work with? Well one possible answer is to look for people who have already solved the problem and embrace what’s called Positive Deviance. (Also known as the ‘Bright Spots’ method.)

A light in the darkness

Positive Deviance (PD) is the idea that in a situation where things are going badly there will be very few people who are actually doing OK. These people will be using uncommon strategies or unusual behaviours that help them to succeed when their peers are struggling. So, Positive because they are doing things right, and Deviance because they are engaged in behaviours that most others are not.

The important thing about this is that the PD’s do not have ‘extra resources’ to play with; they have just found a solution that works that others have missed.

Once the PD’s have been identified the challenge becomes one of identifying what specifically they are doing that differs from the norm, and then finding ways of helping others to adopt those practices. And, of course, evaluating the results of the ‘roll out’ programme.

The PD Method was first used in 1990 when the Save the Children charity was asked by the Vietnamese Government to help them address the very high rates of childhood malnutrition in the remote villages of Thanh Hoa province. (At that time more than 65% of all children living in Vietnamese villages were malnourished.) The Save the Children team began their work by identifying poor families who had managed to avoid malnutrition. Next, they analysed the differences between them and their neighbours and found that the PD families collected tiny shrimps, crabs, and fish from paddy fields, and added those to what other food was available, to their children’s meals. These foods were accessible to everyone, but most community members believed they were inappropriate for young children. However, this extra protein was the difference between lack of proper nutrition and (relative) well-being.

A five-stage process

In PD, rather than go through a classical problem-solving process of root cause analysis, generating options etc., the assumption is made that someone within the community or organisation has already found a solution to the issue at hand. The aim of a PD programme is to conduct a strategic search to find and learn from these Positive Deviants. This involves adopting a five-stage process:

  1. Define the problem and the desired outcome.
  2. Determine the presence of Positive Deviants – use data analysis to find the success stories. Be willing to look outside of your own organisation/industry to find them.
  3. Discover the uncommon practices used by the PD’s; what are they doing that’s different from the norm?
  4. Design ways of spreading the knowledge
  5. Disseminate the knowledge (get people using the strategies), measure the results and (hopefully) publicise success.

Competency Profiles and David McClelland

David C McClelland (1917-1998) spent a lifetime in researching human motivation; amongst other achievements he was a professor at Harvard University and founded the consultancy McBer & Company. In 1973 he wrote a paper arguing that traditional academic exams were an ineffective method for predicting whether someone could, or could not, do a job well. Instead, he proposed that ‘competencies’ – should be used to predict job success.

Competences are defined as; “an underlying characteristic of an individual which is causally related to effective or superior performance in a job”.

A competency consists of (i) a label or name, (ii) a description of what’s meant by the label, and (iii) some examples of what people who use that competency do; what are called ‘behavioural indicators.’

These indicators are both positive (good examples, when the competency is done well) and negative (what you see/don’t see when someone does it badly).

For example:

Label: Initiative

Description: Plans work and carries out tasks without detailed instructions

Positive Behavioural Indicators: Makes constructive suggestions; prepares for problems or opportunities in advance; undertakes additional responsibilities; responds to situations as they arise with minimal supervision; creates novel solutions to problems etc.

Negative Behavioural Indicators: Doesn’t make suggestions; doesn’t plan in advance; only does what they are told to do; requires detailed instructions before acting.

The Behavioural Event Interview (BEI)

McClelland developed the Behavioural Event Interview technique as a way of uncovering competency profiles.

The technique involved selecting two samples: people who were rated as outstanding in their jobs and those who were average performers. The two groups of interviewees were then questioned in-depth about the way they did their work, with a focus on specific occasions when things turned out especially well or particularly badly. Transcripts of the interviews (which were up to 3 hours long) were then made and each separate behaviour was noted. These ‘behavioural indicators’ were then clustered together into ‘competencies’ that differentiated the two samples. Finally, a competency model was validated using a fresh group of interviews.

Diplomacy and spotting emotions

McClelland was involved in a project to help the US Information Service recruit diplomats. The researchers found that the best diplomats were very good at divining the feelings of those they spoke to, even when they were given mixed messages. So, if talking with someone who was saying that everything was ‘fine’ in a tone of voice suggested annoyance, they would respond to the emotional component of the message (the anger) and not the surface message (everything is fine).

Having proven that the competency of ‘Reading Emotions’ was important to the work of a diplomat, it could then be screened for as part of the recruitment process.

A Competency Dictionary – looking up the skills you need

In the 1990s McBer researchers Lyle and Signe Spencer wrote and published a Competency Dictionary providing a listing of some 21 competences and 360 behavioural indicators found by the company to be those most commonly uncovered during their research.

This excellent reference book can be used to identify specific behaviours for training and/or hiring purposes, often without the time and expense involved in doing a full Behavioural Event process. The BEI model can then be used to assess new hires and to spot potential as part of internal talent management processes.

Putting it all together

Top performance requires a level of natural talent plus structured training in the format of Deliberate Practise.

In terms of ‘what’ to practise, we have three methodologies to focus those training efforts.

  1. Behavioural Analysis and
  2. Competency Analysis, are two tried and tested methods for (a) uncovering the key skills areas of top performers and (b) providing a training framework for helping people acquire those skills in a structured way.
  3. Positive Deviance is a great tool for spotting key skills when the situation is difficult and solutions are not immediately obvious. It lets us find the behaviours that people can use to transform their circumstances in an otherwise challenging environment.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how well you understand the nature of excellence. Are you doing all you can to identify and develop top performance in your department/company, and, for that matter, in yourself? What changes might you make?


Read this short article on: Approaches to Positive Deviance.


Watch… this five-minute long YouTube interview with Neil Rackham on his research into effective selling and the SPIN sales method.


Consider signing teams up to our Successful Selection Interviewing workshop, to learn how to conduct Behavioural Event Interviews during the recruitments process; run either as a face to face session, or as a Virtual Training Event.


You might also like to know that we run ‘one to one’ executive coaching assignments (both ‘face to face’ and as Remote Coaching options) to help people understand how top performers ‘do what they do’.


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And finally, a quote by US President Lyndon Johnson about the need to strive for the highest levels of performance…

“The noblest search of today is the search for excellence.”