HBR’s 10 Must Reads on High Performance

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on High Performance
Various Contributors and HBR Editors
Harvard Business Review Press (May 2022)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Aristotle’s insight refers to organizations as well as to individuals and helps to explain both success and failure.

This book is one of the most recent volumes in a series that anthologizes what the editors of the Harvard Business Review consider to be “must reads” in a given business subject area. In this instance, high or peak performance. Each of the selections is eminently deserving of inclusion.

If all of the twelve articles were purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be about $110 and the practical value of any one of them far exceeds that. Given the fact that Amazon US now sells this paperbound volume for only $24.95, that’s quite a bargain.

The same is true of volumes in other series such as HBR Guide to…, Harvard Business Review on…, and Harvard Business Essentials. I also think there is great benefit derived from the convenience of having a variety of perspectives and insights readily available in a single volume, one that is potable.

In all of the volumes in the HBR’s 10 Must Read series that I have read thus far, the authors and their HBR editors make skillful use of several reader-friendly devices that include “Idea in Brief” and “Idea in Action” sections, checklists with and without bullet points, boxed mini-commentaries (some of which are “guest” contributions from other sources), and graphic charts and diagrams that consolidate especially valuable information. These and other devices facilitate, indeed accelerate frequent review of key material later.

* * *

Those who read HBR’s 10 Must Reads On High Performance can develop the cutting-edge thinking needed to achieve a decisive competitive advantage for their organization: accelerated personal growth and professional development.

These are the articles of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of coverage:

“The Making of an Expert” (K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely)

“How to Play to Your Strengths” (Laura Morgan Roberts, Gretchen Spreitzer, Jane Dutton, Robert Quinn, Emily Heaphy, and Brianna Barker Caza

“The Power of Small Wins” (Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer)

“Nine Things Successful People Do Differently” (Heidi Grant)

“Don’t Be Blinded by Your Own Expertise” (Sydney Finkelstein)

“Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance” (Daniel Golman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee)

* * *

Here is a selection of key insights by other contributors to this volume:

o “The challenges of managing yourself may seem obvious and elementary. And the answers may seem self-evident to the point of appearing naive. But managing oneself requires new and unprecedented behavior from the individual, and especially from the knowledge worker. In effect, managing yourself demands that each knowledge worker think and behave like a chief executive officer. Further, the shift from manual workers who do as they are told to knowledge workers who have to manage themselves proudly challenges social structure. Every existing society, even the most individualistic one, takes two things for granted, if only subconsciously: that organizations outlive workers, and that most people stay put.

o “But today the opposite is true. Knowledge workers outlive organizations, and they are mobile. The need to manage oneself is therefore creating a revolution in human affairs.”  Peter Drucker

o “High potentials aren’t just high achievers. They are driven to succeed. Good, even very good, isn’t good enough. Not by any stretch. They are more than willing to go that extra mile and realize they may have to make sacrifices in their personal lives in order to advance. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true to their values, but sheer ambition may lead them to make some pretty hard choices.

o “We often think of high potentials as relentless learners, but a lot of people out there learn continually yet lack an action or results orientation. The high potentials we have come across possess what we call a ‘catalytic learning capability.’ They have the capacity to scan for new ideas, the cognitive capability to absorb them, and the common sense to translate that new learning into productive action for their customers and their organizations.” Douglas A. Ready, Jay A. Conger, and Linda A. Hill

o “Another quality of bad habits is that the benefit is usually immediate and the cost is usually delayed. And with good habits it’s often the reverse…So there’s this gap. There’s sort of this valley of death in the beginning with a lot of good habits. You start doing them, but you don’t have the immediate rewards that you’re showing up and hoping you get. Whereas with bad habits there’s this mismatch between the immediate outcome that you get (‘Hey this feels great in the moment. I should do this’) and then it turns out that it ultimately hurts you in the long run.

o “The cost of your good habits is in the present. The cost of your bad habits is in the future. A lot of the reason why bad habits form so readily and good habits are so unlikely, or resistant to form, has to do with that gap in time and reward.” James Clear and Alison Beard

In this context, I am again reminded of an observation by Warren Buffett: “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

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The headnote for this brief commentary — “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — is widely attributed to Aristotle. Achieving peak performance requires repetition, of course  — thousands of hours of what Ericsson characterizes as “deliberate practice”: knowing WHAT to repeat and HOW to repeat it.  Also,  a combination of ambition, determination (i.e. tenacity), and at least some luck (e.g. being in the right place at the right time). There are no shortcuts.

I am again reminded of three valuable insights. First, from Charles Kettering: “if you have always done it that way, you are probably wrong.” And then from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Finally, from Jack Dempsey: “Champions get up when they can’t.”

For most executives, this may well prove to be the single most valuable collection of HBR articles they ever read if (HUGE “if”) they apply what they learn with the “deliberate practice” to which Ericsson refers.


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