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How to Create an Organization of Superstars

William Seidman is co founder, CEO, and president of Cerebyte, a consultancy focused on increasing organizational performance. He recently participated in an AMA Edgewise podcast to discuss his new book The Star Factor: Discover What Your Top Performers Do Differently and Inspire a New Level of Greatness in All (AMACOM, 2013), which he coauthored with Richard Grbavac. The following is an edited and condensed version of that interview.

AMA: What prompted you to write The Star Factor?
William Seidman: We often hear people say things like, “If only I could clone Joe or Susan” or “I wish I had more people like my top performers.” Everyone knows an organization’s the top performers—its true stars—are the primary driver of that organization’s success. These stars think and act differently. By understanding what makes the stars so extraordinary and developing everyone else to think and act like the stars, an organization can achieve performance beyond what anyone ever thought was possible. The purpose of the book is to help organizations discover what makes their stars so great and so they can motivate everyone else to think and act like the stars. We present a very simple, very practical methodology called affirmative leadership that is based on recent scientific breakthroughs, particularly some of the more interesting work done around the neuroscience of learning using MRIs. And finally, we show how to do this on a grand scale if you have a really huge global organization with thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people.

AMA: What are the results you’ve achieved with the affirmative leadership?
WS: Affirmative leadership has produced consistently excellent results. For example, a retail organization we work with improved sales in stores 5-1/4% in just 12 weeks. If you work in retail or know anything about retail, you know that is very fast, very impressive growth. A manufacturing organization we worked with doubled the accuracy of its production forecast. Since each point of improved accuracy was worth $50 million to their bottom line, this had a huge impact. A fast food chain we work with reduced employee turnover from over 300% a year to less than 100%, so it really stabilized their environment. And an insurance company increased their policy count 15%, compared to the corporate average of just 2.9%.

When you look at the actual financial return on affirmative leadership, it averages about 20 times. That’s not 20%; that’s 20 times. So for each dollar invested, organizations are getting $20 back, which is pretty extraordinary.

But the most important result is creating what we call a culture of greatness. When affirmative leadership is applied to multiple roles in an organization, not just the top of the organization, but customer service people, salespeople, marketing, manufacturing, it creates a culture where everyone makes a significant leadership contribution no matter where they are in the org chart. These organizations just are great places to work. They’re very productive and they’re very financially successful.

AMA: How do we go about identifying the stars within our organization?
WS: Stars are really distinctive in two particular ways. First of all, they simply bring greater energy and passion to their work because they think differently about their job. They have a different mental model about why they’re doing it. And because of this passion they are consistently better organized and more efficient in their actions. The passion is the most important thing because it drives everything else. The stars are always driven by a commitment to achieving a compelling purpose—some sort of greater social good.

For example, we worked with a pharmacy chain where the star pharmacy managers thought of themselves—and this is in their words—as a critical part of the family emergency response system. So they were all about helping families in distress. This sense of compelling purpose drives stars to become operationally excellent. They have learned through experience what really works and what to avoid.

It turns out that organizations can identify these folks very simply. You go to the management team and you say, “Who are the people you most respect?” The management team can literally visualize who these people are. They have a mental picture of them. You then test that mental picture by asking, “Are these your go-to people?” If you get all jammed up, if you’re having a crisis, do you go to these people as your primary resource? The next question is, if they tell you how to do something, do you believe them without spending a lot of time second guessing them? It turns out that the stars are anyone who basically is the answer to all three of those questions—you respect them, they’re your go-to people, and you trust what they say.

AMA: Is it really that simple?
WS: Actually, it turned out to be so simple and so fast that we didn’t believe it was true. So we looked at all the standard human resource analytic tools, and we tried them for network analysis and knowledge sharing and things like that to produce a list of the stars. And it turned out it produced the identical list. That analytic process took months and cost thousands of dollars, whereas the respect criteria takes typically 20 minutes—and it’s free!

AMA: In the book you note that top performers themselves can’t articulate why they’re so good at their jobs. So how do you discover the skills, attitudes, and knowledge that drive a star?
WS: In the world of knowledge management, there is always a concern that you can’t get information from the stars. People would go to the stars and say, “Tell me what makes you great.” Yet because they were actually unconscious of what made them so extraordinary, they couldn’t answer the question. So to really get to their deep knowledge, particularly the underlying mental model, this sense of purpose, the first thing you have to do is get them very engaged. Stars, it turns out, are actually pretty easy to engage. We say to them, “We’d like to invite you to a three-day workshop where you will meet with the few people who are your peers in the organization to discuss greatness in your function.” The very first thing they say is, “Who are my peers?” (haha). This is obviously a very flattering kind of thing. What’s interesting is that they immediately transition from that question to talking about their view of greatness. They say, “See, here is what it means to be a great salesperson or service person or marketing person.” Part of being a star is they’re just fascinated by that whole process.

AMA: How do you take the stars’ attitudes and behaviors and get them to the rest of the organization? How do you integrate that within the larger culture?
WS: A lot of people ask us, “How do you change the culture of an organization? How do you create an extraordinary high-performing organization like, say, Southwest Airlines or Zappos?” And our answer is, “One person at a time.” And that one person at a time is by plugging into that greater purpose. When we look at underperforming individuals and underperforming organizations, to a phenomenal degree we find that they don't have a clear purpose. They have lame mission statements. They have PowerPoint slides. When we talk about purpose, we’re talking about something that is so energizing that each individual says, “Yeah, that’s the kind of company I want to be part of. That’s the kind of person I want to be.” And it’s at a whole different level.

You can learn more about motivating your employees to become stars in these AMA seminars:
Coaching and Counseling for Outstanding Job Performance

The Voice of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire, Influence and Achieve Results

Learn more about The Star Factor: Discover What Your Top Performers Do Differently and Inspire a New Level of Greatness in All (AMACOM, 2013).