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Top Performers: Obsessive Learning And Relentless Execution

by David Brock on December 31st, 2014

At one point, I wanted to get better at golf (it’s hard to be worse than I am).  I started reading a lot of “How To” books, watching videos, and taking lessons.  As I stood, club in hand, looking down at the ball, I struggled to remember:  “Keep your head down, bend your knees, keep evenly balanced, keep your back straight, shoulders level, reach straight back, keep your arm straight, watch your elbow……”  I’d always end up twisted like a pretzel, the ball would go further to the left or right than in front of me.

Sometimes, I think people trying to learn and improve their performance, in whatever discipline, face the same confusing litany of all the things they have to do simultaneously.  There’s so much too remember–often very conflicting advice and points of view.  For sales people, it may be “Do your research, what’s your opening line, be provocative, challenge, create value, be social, engage in dialog, watch body language, listen, ask questions, but teach, understand the buying process, look for buying signals, don’t forget the sales process, and don’t forget to update CRM….”  By the way, “did you get the order, can we forecast it…..”

In my unscientific observations of top performers–across all areas—sports, business, selling, entertainment, etc—I’ve a sense they have simplified the process tremendously.

Top performers, at least in my observations, tend to do two things all the time.  They are obsessive in their learning–but it’s really focused learning.  They are relentless in their execution—they don’t always succeed, but they keep showing up.

Obsessive learning, I’ve noticed this is almost a paranoia among top performers.  In preparation, they fear they may have overlooked or missed something, so they keep digging, but in a very focused manner.  If they are in sales, they want to know more about the customer they are meeting than the customer knows.  They want to understand their business, their markets, their customers, their competition, their company strategies and performance against those strategies.

They know that their power lies in their knowledge (and their ability to apply that in the situation, but I’ll come to that in a moment).  They have the goal of knowing more than the people they are meeting, whether it’s customers, colleagues, others.  Even though they know it’s impossible, they recognize knowing as much as possible better prepares them for what they are trying to achieve.

While this may seem to contradict my earlier statements, they seem to have an instinctual sense of knowing what they need to know.  They can filter through all sorts of data and information, knowing the tidbits that are most critical for them at the moment.  So they don’t get distracted by meaningless junk.

They use their daily experience to build on their knowledge base, refining their approach to learning and building their knowledge, and re-applying it.

While I also said they are very focused about their learning–they are also seem to be very broad in what they learn.  It seems they are obsessively focused on what they need to learn to deal with the current situation–whether it’s a sales call, deal strategy, account plan, business strategy, and so forth.  But at the same time, they are curious and learn a lot from a lot of disciplines.  It helps them keep fresh, get new ideas, try different approaches, to be creative and innovate.

So you see them reading a lot of stuff, not just books/blogs on selling, marketing, or business.  They read history, economics, fiction, biographies.  They meet people in different professions, different industries.  They are eclectic in their tastes in music, art, food.  They have interests and hobbies outside their profession.  It’s part of their “system” for obsessively learning and collecting knowledge they can apply in achieving their goals.  Some of us call this being well rounded, but they are very purposeful in what they do.

 Relentless execution.  Top performers are obsessive in their learning because the are very goal directed.  Their learning is purposeful and intended to help them achieve their goals.  Their goal is not just to be the most knowledgeable person in the room/conversation, but to achieve something.  Whether it’s to incite a customer to change, gain support for an initiative within their own organization, build or grow a business, they leverage knowledge in execution.

But they are relentless.  They know they will be kicked in the teeth, they will fail, they will fall short of their goals.  They aren’t deterred, they keep going–but not blindly, but based on what they’ve learned.  Their past experience informs and focuses their future execution.  They are agile, nimble and adaptable in their execution.  They recognize that doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result is insanity.  They learn the power of pivoting–whether it’s a business strategy, a sales strategy, or something else.

They plan and execute like master chess players—looking at the whole game, the sequence of steps and actions, not just the next move.  They know this prepares them to deal with adversity and surprises.

They have an internal compass that guides their execution–they are doing it for themselves, not because their manager told them to do something.  They have their own goals, so quota, winning a deal, building a business, is just something they pass on the way to achieving their own personal goals.

I think the “relentlessness” or that internal compass is driven by passion.  They keep showing up, they keep learning and executing because of the passion that drives them to achieve their goals.

They are open about what they are seeking to do and achieve, and they “always do what they say they are going to do.”

They don’t take “no” for an answer, but keep looking at ways to succeed.

They always, always, always show up.  They recognize, “The world doesn’t notice if you don’t show up.”  (Thanks to Jay Jay French of Twisted Sister for both of these quotes.)

Concluding thoughts.  I’m never going to be a good golfer, I just couldn’t find a way to clear my mind of all the conflicting advice on my swing.  But I do think it’s possible to be a top performer by focusing on the two things top performers focus on, then figuring it out for myself.  I only have to think of two things:  Obsessive Learning, Relentless Execution.  I can figure the rest out.

  1. Doug Schmidt permalink

    Dave, Happy New Year! Thank you for the great posts and insights.

    One of the ways I became a more effective learner is I started to read and follow military strategy and culture. Several things I learned:
    1) They encourage a culture of learning. The Navy, Army Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard have required reading lists at every level from privates to generals. Why don’t we? Are books too expensive?
    2) Our military knows the importance of integrating strategy, operations and tactics. For example, marines understand the importance of making decisions and the impact they have. They have studied Sun Szu, Clausewitz and John Boyd’s OODA Loop. How come we in sales and marketing are still debating and trying to figure out how to get sales and marketing to work together to develop effective strategies? Where is the leadership? Don’t we pay executives enough to lead? Or is developing a coherent and effective sales and marketing strategies a mystery?
    3) How about the many courses organizations could take for free on leadership, innovation, learning, negotiation via organizations like My friends from the Army, Marines and Navy gladly participated and led these courses. Why can’t we take advantage of these learning opportunities? Or is making people smarter and capable a threat to the status quo?
    Maybe we have a lot to learn from LEADERS who know how to LEAD! It is not Snooki or the Kardashians!

  2. Dave writes:

    “They plan and execute like master chess players—looking at the whole game, the sequence of steps and actions, not just the next move.

    They know this prepares them to deal with adversity and surprises.”

    Dave, I think you are importantly wrong.

    The point about good chess players is that they look at a move made by their opponent and wonder: why did they do that? They are constantly scanning for intentions from actions.

    (Of course it is harder to do with when your opponent is both man & machine, ie Watson.)

    You can become very good at chess without looking ahead too far in the game. Or even playing that much.

    Anyone can become pretty good at strategic thought just by wondering about what the other fella or gal thinks that they are up to.

    More important than look ahead, or forecasting. In my view.

    • Mike, I don’t disagree, at least totally. Perhaps the chess analogy is not appropriate. I think the more important point is the constant interaction between learning and the experience gained in that learning, constantly evaluating and tuning for improvement.

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