Best-Self Management: Don’t Manage Employee Performance, Unlock Their Potential

Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash

I’m about to introduce you to a proven methodology called Best-Self Management, that has led to unbelievable success at my company, and for every employee. By building a culture and instituting practices that supported each person in being and becoming their Best-Self, high performance and uncommon loyalty resulted naturally across the board. But first it’s important for you to understand how I got here.

I graduated from college 20 years ago with a degree in computer engineering and the dream of starting a company of my own, but didn’t feel like I was ready and wanted to get some “experience.” I was recruited by a 7,000 person public consulting firm and then quickly relegated to what I called “beige cubicle land.” I was working 10 to 11 hour days from a windowless computer lab in Roseland, NJ, doing work that I described as “soul-crushing.”

In hindsight, I now realize that it wasn’t the work itself, nor the environment that were to blame, but it was the organization’s poor culture and the lack of context that was given to me about my work. How did my work impact the company, the world, anyone?

It was that experience that propelled me into entrepreneurship earlier than I’d expected, so in the summer of 1999, I co-founded an ad-tech company in NYC and was on my way! But after the initial excitement wore off, I once again found myself struggling. I wasn’t producing the results I had hoped for, and I felt this sense of emptiness about the products and services we were building for our customers. Here I was living what I thought was my dream, and nothing seemed to be going right.

This launched me into a near decade long inquiry and exploration where I studied everything I could get my hands on, from productivity to psychology (and everything in between) and attended seminars ranging from personal development to business. While I may not have been consciously aware of it at the time, what I was really seeking was a sense of meaning & purpose, I was seeking to become my Best-Self.

Perhaps most impactful and serendipitous of all, I met Simon Sinek in 2007, who two years later gave his famous TED talk that’s now garnered over 41 million views. Simon shared that what sets apart the most extraordinary companies and entrepreneurs from everyone else, are those who clearly know and lead from their WHY in everything they do. This final piece seemed to be the key I’d been missing for experiencing both success and fulfillment combined.

I also learned that, more often than not, there’s a huge gap between the possibilities portrayed by thought leaders like Simon, and what we experience inside most organizations today. One of the reasons his message resonates so strongly is because it calls to that part of each one of us that has a deep desire to be and become our Best-Self.

So when it came time to start my next company, I realized that my WHY was to support people in being and becoming their best selves. At the outset, I asked the question, “What if we built a company whose sole purpose was unlocking the potential of the people in it? What if our product was designed to help unlock the potential of each person at the organizations we served? Wouldn’t that lead to uncommonly high performance and loyalty?”

From that question, my company 15Five was born. Today, 15Five is at the forefront of a new category of software that helps leaders and managers drive high performance by bringing out the best in their people (commonly referred to as continuous performance management).

I attribute all of our success to the questions we asked at the outset, the culture we designed which resulted from that inquiry, and the leadership and management practices we’ve put in place over the life of the company. Based on our success to date, I now feel very confident that we’re on to something, and ready to start sharing our learnings more broadly with the world.

A new management paradigm

Most companies struggle to attract, retain, and maximize their people, because they’ve been looking in the wrong direction and focusing on the wrong things. It’s an innocent mistake. Most organizations simply do what’s always been done, and while that may have been effective and made sense at that time, they are no longer useful for the times we live in now.

During the industrial era, it was leadership and management who added strategic design and operational value, and what organizations needed was hard working, cheap labor who would follow the script, and who were more or less replaceable.

But the environment is now dramatically different. Josh Bersin, a key analyst in the HR technology space recently summed it up by saying, “Today more than 85% of stock market capitalization is intellectual property, brand, services, and software so every person matters.”

In today’s world, the people in organizations who are creating that intellectual property and software, and the people who are delivering the services and representing the brand with everything they produce and every customer they touch, are the company’s individual contributors. It’s the companies who create extraordinary intellectual property, software, services and brands who succeed in this environment, and extraordinary doesn’t happen by following a script.

The world of work has changed dramatically and the most commonly practiced methods of leadership and management haven’t kept pace. Those practices are not merely ineffective, but have become increasingly counterproductive at producing the level of high performance and engagement companies are striving so hard to achieve.

The modern management secret

I’m now going to share a secret with you that my co-founders and I have discovered after running a 6+ year experiment inside of 15Five, that proves helping every employee become their Best-Self works for their benefit as well as the financial success of the company.

I’m happy to say that today we’re a company of nearly 70 employees and have only had two people voluntarily leave in our entire history (the last one three years ago). We’ve been extraordinarily capital efficient, and based on a reputable benchmark, we were recently producing about 2x the average revenue per employee of companies at a similar size and stage. And finally, this year we’ll nearly double our annual recurring revenue while burning very little cash.

So what exactly do I mean by Best-Self? I find it’s helpful to illustrate it in contrast to what it’s not. Some things you might notice when people are being their best selves are that they exhibit extraordinary performance vs. average or mediocre performance. They’re engaged in learning and growing vs. drama and politics.

Further, there are a number of universal characteristics people exhibit when they’re being their best self:

In my own personal journey as an entrepreneur, I spent much of my 20s educating myself as I mentioned above. One of the things that struck me from all of this study was what Abraham Maslow eloquently pointed out in his now famous Hierarchy of Needs (which I’ll share more about below).

Just as a plant or tree will naturally grow into its full potential if given the right conditions for its unique nature (e.g. soil, altitude, air, water, sunlight, etc.), so will a human being naturally grow into his or her full potential if given the right conditions and environment. It’s literally built into our nature. That innate desire, no matter how seemingly buried it might be, is also why I believe we’re drawn to thought leaders and their messages like, Simon Sinek’s Start With Why or Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability.

What organizations need most from their people is now completely aligned with what those same people want for themselves — an opportunity to work in an environment where they can truly thrive and put their unique strengths and talents to work in service of a mission they believe in.

So what are we doing differently, and how can you put this into action in your own company?

First off, I personally believe that performance is a result or an outcome, not something that can be managed directly; it’s a byproduct of focusing on other things that give rise to it. Therefore if you’re practicing “performance management” you’re already trying to manage the wrong thing.

If you think about it from the perspective of sports, once a player or athlete is on the court or the field, there’s not all that much management of their performance you can do. It’s everything that player/athlete has done leading up to it that will by and large determine how well they will perform. In business, it’s no different.

If you shouldn’t be doing Performance Management, what should you be doing?

The answer to that question is to instead focus on Best-Self Management. By supporting people in being and becoming their best selves, higher and ever increasing performance becomes a natural by-product, not to mention uncommon levels of passion, commitment, and loyalty — qualities less and less often associated with the average person’s experience of work.

This management philosophy and methodology allows you to address the hidden factors that stimulate sustainable growth and development in each employee to in turn help your company become far more successful than you had ever thought possible. Because today what organizations need most are people who are tapped into their greatest gifts and strengths, who are passionate, committed to the mission, loyal and who are able to express genius-level performance through their work. These people are anything but easily replaceable.

We define Best-Self Management in two parts. First, it’s about creating a culture that brings out the best in who your people are today. This is an important distinction, because there’s nowhere anyone needs to get to. Your people are already great. They have natural talents and strengths, and positive qualities that can be more readily expressed given the right environment.

Second, it’s about supporting people in learning, growing, developing, evolving and becoming their best over time. We’re all works in progress. We all have a unique set of talents, passions and perspectives. When we take the time to understand what those are, and give someone the opportunity to align their work with those talents and passions such that they’re able to make the greatest contribution possible, they can’t help but grow quickly.

Now before you jump to thinking this is some airy, soft style of leadership, let me put this in context. I often hear companies in Silicon Valley debating about whether they’re a Sports Team or a Family. For example, Reed Hastings of Netflix often speaks about how they made the conscious decision that they’re a Sports Team.

Each of these metaphors has pros and cons, but in general, the Family tends to prioritize relationships over results, and the Sports Team prioritizes results over relationships. I personally don’t believe we need to choose, and that we can both radically care for the people in our organizations while radically caring about performance and results as well.

A great example of this comes from one of our top salespeople, Allison. Allison came to us as a single mother of a four year old, who didn’t feel much loyalty to a former employer because they made it fairly difficult for her when she was having her first child. While at 15Five, she met a new partner and decided to have a second child. We believe that having a child and integrating them into a family is a massive endeavor and the standard practices in terms of family leave in the U.S. are seriously inadequate.

Even though we’re a young company, we offer up to a full four months of paid leave so that our employees are able to truly take care of themselves and their families. Allison was our first salesperson to take this leave, so I discussed with our CRO how we would handle compensation during that time. It didn’t seem fair to just pay her the base salary, as that would be half or even less of what she typically earned and might create a financial hardship.

Instead, I suggested that we take the average of the commission she typically produces from the prior few quarters and pay her that. That way she’d have the peace of mind that her income was stable during her time away. She was the top producing salesperson in Q3, hitting 230% of quota, and shared this High Five (which I’m sharing with her permission) to me, our CRO, and Chief Culture Officer via our own tool 15Five:

This is a massively different experience for Allison than she had at her former employer. If I had to guess, I’d bet she’s going to come back even stronger and more loyal after her leave, and we’ll get to benefit from her brilliant determination, skill and drive as a top performing salesperson for 15Five for a long time to come.

What does it take to actually put Best-Self Management into action?

First, there are a few key distinctions that I think are important to grasp, as well as a few important (but non exhaustive) concepts related to human growth and potential. Finally, you’ll need a high-level leadership strategy as well as specific practices that all manager/coaches should engage in in your organization.

Let’s start with the distinctions:

#1) Being vs. Doing

Every individual and every group of people have both a being state (which is largely internal/invisible) and a doing state (which is largely external/visible). Here are some examples:

While it’s now nearly universally agreed that culture is a critical driver of success for an organization, that wasn’t always the case, not even ten years ago. Many business leaders I would speak with at the time were confused about it’s importance, dismissed it as “soft” or even denied it’s existence. One of the reasons is that culture isn’t something you can “see” (although I’d argue you can sense/feel it) or easily measure. But just as we can’t easily see or measure thoughts, feelings and emotions, I don’t think any of us would argue that they’re not real.

Not only are they real, but they dictate and determine what we do and even more importantly how we show up in what we do (e.g. are we centered, open, and curious, or are we frustrated, defensive, and closed?). On the group side of things, culture is a manifestation of the being state of a group of people.

Once again, the culture (made up of shared purpose, beliefs, values, social norms, etc.) will play a major role in what people do and how they do it. The key principle here is that the internal/invisible being states, whether individual or collective, largely drive the external/visible doing, so they need to be cared for as much, if not more so, than the external doing. In many cases, if you get the being right, the doing takes care of itself. And if the being is off, no amount of incentives/rewards, punishments, commission plans, etc., are going to drive the sustained outcomes you’re after over the long term.

#2) Work vs. Life

I think it’s important to challenge this concept that we have a “work life” and a “personal life”. This flows out of the concepts or work-life balance or work-life integration.

The reality however is that we really have just one life, and work is a big part of it.

And for some of us, it might look more like this!

It follows that many leaders believe they shouldn’t have any concern for what a person is doing outside of the office. But the reality is if someone is having challenges at work, that same self goes home and those challenges can impact their life outside the office.

More importantly, if someone is having challenges outside of the office, that same self comes in the office and those challenges affect how they’ll show up at work. So while I don’t believe as leaders we need to be responsible for people’s lives outside of work, it is a far more powerful stance to bring empathy, care, and understanding to a person’s life. We need to make sure we’re not creating barriers to a person’s ability to adequately care for their life and family outside of the office, and even make a commitment to our people thriving not just in their work lives, but in their whole lives.

The five keys to Best-Self Management

Next, there are five keys that I’ve found are universally important in supporting people in being and becoming their best selves. It’s worth noting that this is a non-exhaustive list and that may other concepts and models can be added to this. However the five I’d like to speak to are:

  1. Growth Mindset
  2. Strengths -> Zone of Genius
  3. Maslow & Psychological Safety
  4. Intrinsic Motivation
  5. Positive Psychology

1. Growth Mindset

If you haven’t yet read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, it’s a worthwhile read. She’s a Stanford University psychologist who did research into children and learned that some kids have what she calls a fixed mindset about themselves or at least some aspect of themselves, whereas others had what she calls a growth mindset.

Those with a fixed mindset believe that all or some of their traits are fixed, be it a particular skill, or their personality, intelligence, etc. Those with a growth mindset believe the opposite, that they or those aspects are malleable and can be improved or changed over time.

The studies showed that the kids with the growth mindset were more resilient, open to challenge, and weren’t as afraid of failure, whereas the kids with the fixed mindset were more likely to avoid challenges that might reveal their inadequacy, and would act in ways to protect themselves and keep them looking good, but weren’t as resilient and were less likely to grow, excel and thrive.

When it comes to the workplace, it’s essential for managers to understand which one of these buckets their people fall into. For instance, if you take a growth approach with a fixed person, this could be very counterproductive because it may be seen as an attack on their performance. Best-Self managers preempt this by orienting their teams toward a collective growth mindset as the foundation.

2. Managing Strengths

While it’s true we all have the capacity to grow and evolve, we don’t necessarily have the ability to grow equally in all domains. Each one of us has a unique set of innate talents or proclivities (one good method for learning these is the Clifton Strengths 34). Once you get clear on somebody’s strengths you can start to move people toward their Zone of Genius.

In any domain of doing, we each fall into one of the four boxes above — the Zone of Incompetence, the Zone of Competence, the Zone of Excellence (which is a trap that I’ll explain in a moment) and the Zone of Genius, our place of greatest potential contribution, characterized by experiencing periods of flow where we lose track of time and where the work inherently energizes us.

The distinction between the Zone of Excellence and Zone of Genius can sometimes be difficult to notice from the outside because the difference between the two is passion. In the Zone of Excellence we’ve likely honed those skills because we’ve gotten social recognition and monetary rewards for playing in that sphere, and been asked or chosen to contribute in that way, but it’s actually draining over time and doesn’t fulfill us. It’s a trap because if we don’t recognize that and give up those activities, we’ll never make space for the things are truly in our Zone of Genius, where we have an even greater potential to make our biggest impact, and where we have a sense of passion, fulfillment and positive energy.

I’ll give you a quick example. About two years ago I sat down with our head of marketing and asked her to inventory out all of her activities and share which ones gave her energy and which ones drained her. She was so good at everything she did so I was shocked to learn that nearly a full 50% of her activities she considered draining and work she’d prefer not to be doing!

It had been weighing on her to the point where she admitted she’d been having thoughts of possibly looking for another job. We hired a marketing coordinator whose Zone of Genius contained the very things she found draining. By offloading those tasks, we now had two employees spending most of their time in their Zone of Genius and stepping up into the next level of performance and contribution.

3. Maslow and Psychological Safety

Abraham Maslow astutely observed that as human beings we’re naturally wired to be and become our best selves, provided certain fundamental needs are being met, at least to a certain degree:

Whenever any of our lower needs are threatened, all of our attention goes there. For example, if I’m feeling socially insecure and lack self-esteem and I’m having chest pain, I’m not thinking about Esteem and Belonging, I’m fully focused on my physiological survival and probably calling 911. Thus, we’re always focused at the lowest level of threat.

The rungs on Maslow’s pyramid managers need to be mostly concerned with are Safety, Belonging, and Esteem. Unfortunately most organizations inadvertently create a feeling of threat and insecurity for their people where they don’t feel safe or they don’t feel they belong. Why this matters is because this maps to exactly the way our brains function.

Our limbic system is constantly searching for threats. Our oldest brain, often referred to as the “lizard brain”, is always asking the question, Am I safe?

Our mid-brain, or mammalian brain, responsible for all of our emotions is asking the question, Am I accepted/loved?

If either of these two answers is no, or the perception is no, your employee is immediately brought into defense and is more likely to act in ways that seem to protect than to be open, curious, and fully contributing. This is why you’ll often see people in organizations covering for themselves or others. There’s gossip, toxicity, internal politics, lack of trust, withholding information, etc… If you even have any hint of this in your organization, it’s likely due to a lack of safety and/or belonging, which tends to be a symptom of some lack of health in the team or culture.

When the two needs of Safety and Belonging are met, that gives rise a state of psychological safety, the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. When people feel both respected (Safety) and accepted (Belonging) that part of their brains can relax and they are able to naturally access their higher order brain functions that thrive through challenge, creativity, passion, and intuition. This is where every employee makes their greatest contributions.

A major component of Best-Self Management is designing cultures to meet the needs of Safety and Belonging to create psychological safety, then allow people to work as much as possible in their Zone of Genius, to provide a strong sense of esteem. Provided then that our physiology is handled, this gives rise to us moving naturally into being and becoming our best selves, what Maslow called Self-Actualization.

4. Intrinsic Motivation

If you’ve read Dan Pink’s book, Drive,or seen his wonderful RSA Animate presentation, you’ll recall that he did a study on intrinsic motivation and determined that Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose were the prerequisites. I’ve combined that with research on motivation from Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who found that Meaning, Mastery and Membership were required. Putting this together, we get the intrinsic motivation RAMP — Relatedness, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose:

Intrinsic motivation results from relatedness (a connection to others), autonomy (the freedom to work on a task, project or challenge using our unique strengths), mastery (the ability to keep getting better and better at what we do), and purpose (a connection to something greater than ourselves).

It’s critical to design for intrinsic motivation, because when somebody wakes up in the morning and is intrinsically motivated to do great work and bring their best, rather than being motivated solely by their paycheck or by the fear of losing their job, the quality of their contributions far exceed anything possible through mere external motivators.

5. Positive Psychology

Finally, it’s important to have a cursory understanding of the science of positive psychology, a field largely influenced by the work of Martin Seligman. While the majority of traditional psychology focuses on illness, positive psychology brings a much needed balance to the field by focusing on happiness, well-being, and the factors that contribute to a fulfilling life.

Shawn Achor gives a wonderful and hilarious overview of positive psychology in his TED talk, The Happy Secret to Better Work.The basic thesis is that our brains are by default wired to survive and not to thrive. We’re constantly searching for threats in safe environments (relative to the vast majority of human history), and when we’re in threat, as we discussed in the section on psychological safety, we’re operating out of our lower brain centers and literally not able to access our highest and clearest creativity.

However, we can retrain our brains to be more positively oriented through focused effort doing things like meditation and focusing on gratitude. This is why gratitude journals are so popular and effective. As it turns out, the positive brain is far more effective than the negative, neutral, or stressed brain. Shawn says that in a positive state, “your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy level rises, and every single business outcome improves.”

For Best-Self Management to work you’ll need to train your managers accordingly:

  • Every employee needs to know that you are committed to them thriving in their whole lives, not just their work lives.
  • You must create a high degree of psychological safety and a help engrain positive brain states through regular team/company rituals and practices.
  • Design for intrinsic motivation.
  • Implement surveys and continuous feedback to understand how engaged and satisfied employees are.
  • Resolve individual and systemic issues promptly before they fester and become bigger problems, or somebody ends up leaving. You need to vigilantly protect your culture from anything that could become toxic to it.

Best-Self Management Training

Once you’re operating with that leadership strategy, it’s important to make sure each and every manager is trained on what Best-Self Management is. Then implement each of the 5 key practices below, which act like an iterative loop to continually support each employee on their journey during their tenure at your company:

  1. Managers need to initiate a Best-Self Discovery process with each of their direct reports. This helps employees self-reflect and get reflections from peers and other assessments to better understand what drives them, what their strengths are, and then clarify this into a statement for themselves around their potential Unique Ability or Zone of Genius. This is a process that should be returned to and refined periodically as people grow and develop.
  2. Managers support each employee in setting at least one Personal Development Objective alongside their business Objectives (OKRs) during each quarter, or other period of time for which you set goals. Learning and growth never ends, and everyone needs to be focused on leaning into their next growth edge.
  3. Managers engage in some form of weekly check-in. This can be done asynchronously and in a lightweight manager but it is essential. Employees need a place to regularly share their successes, challenges, progress on goals/OKRs, weekly priorities, and peer appreciation, and receive coaching and feedback along the way. This is the core of the 15Five product, and whether you use 15Five or not, this piece is critical.
  4. Managers perform regular 1-on-1s (ideally in person, or via video with distributed teams) to go deeper on key issues that are often surfaced through the weekly check-in. I personally like a cadence of every other week, but these can range from as frequently as weekly to as infrequently as once per month.
  5. Managers perform regular Best-Self Reviews. This is our take on reframing the outdated annual performance review as an opportunity to support someone in being and becoming their best self, where high performance is the natural by-product. While we still advocate measuring and providing feedback on performance, we put a high degree of attention on helping to reflect and refine a person’s strengths, plan out their Personal Development Objectives, and continue to focus them on their own personal growth and development journey. In our model, the process is much more lightweight than a typical performance review, and can be done as frequently as once per quarter, but ideally no less than twice per year.

We’ve built 15Five to help facilitate the above process and will be working on a series of both leadership and manager trainings that we will be rolling out in 2019. We’ll go deeper into cultural design, shifting employee mindsets, giving and receiving effective feedback, and we’ll provide ways to measure the progress at your company. If you’re interested in being notified when Best-Self Management trainings are available, you can pre-register here.

If you’re a leader, all of the above requires you to genuinely and authentically care about your people, and care about them thriving in their whole lives, not just their work lives. When you activate the strategies and practices I’ve outlined above, you have the opportunity to create an uncommonly powerful environment where your people can produce extraordinary results.

Best-Self Management is a truly win-win paradigm of leadership and management, and I believe that if we take this on together, we have the possibility of creating a more inspired, powerful, and purposeful world where everybody wins.

I’d love to hear feedback in the comments below about what resonated for you, and I hope you’ll help lead the way inside your company to create an entirely new world of work.