We have seen it so many times. The iconic image of someone, whether running, swimming, racing cars, etc., crossing the finish line with their arms raised in the air in victory. Who can forget Usain Bolt’s multiple Olympic victories where he clearly destroyed his competition? I can remember Richard Petty crossing the finish line 200 times to the waving checkered flag, almost double the number of wins than his next competitor.
We view the finish line as a symbol of victory and success. And rightly so. The person who crosses that line is usually the best or the fastest or the strongest. But not always.
It is pretty cut and dry in the case of Bolt’s 100m victories. Every competitor starts the same distance from the finish line. They also have the choice of starting blocks, shoes and clothing to best suit their preference. So when Bolt crosses the finish line first, he is clearly the fastest runner in the world.
Unfortunately in business, it is not always that easy or clear cut.
We can often miss out on identifying some of our best talent by only looking at the finish line. It could be total sales dollars, number of new clients, highest satisfaction results, or a myriad of other business metrics.
Leaders would certainly have a much easier job if identifying talent was as easy as knowing that Usain Bolt is the fast runner in the world. But it is not.
Well why not?
Unlike a 100m sprint, not all of our talent has the same set of starting conditions. For instance, if I were to race Usain Bolt, I would like to start at the 95th meter. Even then, it would be a challenge to beat him to the finish line. But if I were to actually beat him in that unfair race and we were ONLY looking at the finish line, then we might very errantly conclude that I was faster than Bolt. Let me be perfectly clear…I AM NOT!
So what does that mean for business leaders?
The finish line does not tell the whole story. Sometimes the starting line tells a better story. Sometimes the journey in between tells the story. And quite frequently, all three used together, tell the most complete story.
It means that we sometimes have to look at growth over a time period, as opposed to simply looking at some pre-constructed finish line or business goal.
Another analogy is that of the use of standardized testing to measure student knowledge and/or teacher efficacy. Allow me to use this example to illustrate. Teacher A has a class of students who all read on the 3rd grade level. Teacher B has students who all read on the 6th grade level but are in the 3rd grade like the others. At the end of the year the students are tested again and Teacher A’s students are now on the 5th grade level and Teacher B’s students are still on the 6th grade level.
In this oversimplified example, by only looking at the grade level designation results from the year end test, or the “finish line”, one might conclude that Teacher B’s students are smarter, or on a better track and/or that Teacher B is a better teacher. After all, her students are one grade level ahead of the others.
But that would be totally wrong. What teacher would you want your child to have, Teacher A or Teacher B?
As a business leader, as you are identifying, developing, recruiting and retaining the best talent you can, it is important to look deeper than just the finish line results. It requires more thought, insight, analysis, observation, multiple measures and a good look at growth or progress over time.
It is likely that you have both Teachers A and B in your organization. You probably also have a Teacher Z. Whatever that is.
Since your people are, or at least should be, your greatest asset, doesn’t it make sense to resist the temptation to only look at the finish line? By so doing, the greatest risk is that you’ve spent some time validating that those who crossed first did an excellent job. However, you may also discover that you have some unknown, untapped, or emerging talent that can take your organization to the next level.
Finally and selfishly, we can help ourselves cross the finish line first, or faster than before, by better identifying and recognizing the talent in our organizations.