"The Jittery Compass": Moving your performance from good to great

"The Jittery Compass": Moving your performance from good to great

compass Medium - iStockphotoWhat’s the difference between good job performance and great job performance? And how do you explain that to a junior manager seeking guidance? Today’s post has some answers.

The annual performance review

As part of their annual review process, managers at many companies are given a performance rating indicating how well they did their job that year. For example, at Procter & Gamble, where I worked for two decades earlier in my career, the top 15 to 20 percent of performers received a 1-rating, with the remaining 80 to 85 percent sharing the 2- and 3-ratings. I’d often been asked by junior managers, “What do I need to have on my work plan next year to get a 1 rating?”

It’s an impossible question to answer, mostly because it depends on how well the other managers do. Since ratings were assigned on a forced curve, if everybody has a great year, it’s much more difficult to get a 1-rating than in a typical year.

After many years of managing and rating employees, I could usually provide some coaching to make sure their work plans for the next year would at least get them in the top half of the bell curve. But I’d noticed over the years that most of the people who got the 1-ratings did so because they accomplished something they didn’t plan on ahead of time — something that wasn’t in their work plan. A problem came up or an opportunity presented itself and they jumped on it, turning it into a victory.

After years of trying to explain that to people in a satisfactory manner (and failing), I finally came across a story about a scientist who captured the essence of the idea. At almost 200 years old, the story may be at least partially apocryphal. But since I’m not teaching a science class, I still find it useful. Here’s what I ended up telling those aspirational and inquisitive young managers that turned out to be more instructive.

The Jittery Compass

Hans Christian Oersted was a Danish physicist at the University of Copenhagen in the early 1800s. On the night of April 21, 1820, Oersted was giving a lecture to his students on electricity. He had a simple wire circuit connected to a battery and a voltameter to show the level of the current. As legend has it, sometime during the demonstration, Oersted noticed a magnetic compass on the table and picked it up to move it out of the way. As he did, he noticed the compass needle jump wildly as it passed near the electric circuit. Oersted moved it back near the wire and it jumped again.

After the demonstration, Oersted asked one of his assistants if he’d ever seen that happen. His assistant responded very matter-of-factly, “Sure. It happens all the time.” Apparently his assistants had already learned to keep magnets away from the circuits when doing demonstrations with electricity.

That intrigued Oersted, so he continued to experiment with it over the next several months until he conclusively demonstrated a direct relationship between electricity and magnetism. He discovered that electric currents generate magnetic currents, and magnetic currents generate electric currents. Of course, this phenomenon is now known as electromagnetism and is the underlying mechanism that explains the light we see, the television and radio waves that entertain us, the cell phone signals that keep us in touch, the microwaves that cook our food, and the X-rays that help diagnose our ailments. Much of modern physics—including Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as well as Quantum Mechanics—has its roots in electromagnetism.

The lesson

The lesson is that Hans Christian Oersted didn’t become the discoverer of electromagnetism because he was looking for it. It wasn’t on his “work plan.” He also wasn’t the first person to notice the fact that magnetic compasses freak out when they pass near an electric current. He discovered electromagnetism because he was the first to recognize the significance of the jittery compass. And he pursued it.

“So if you want a 1 rating,” I would tell my eager young manger, “first have a strong work plan and accomplish everything on it. But then, pay attention to what’s going on around you. Watch for something interesting to happen in your business — a problem that needs solving or an opportunity nobody has pursued yet. Be curious. Ask yourself if there’s something significant going on. Where is your “jittery compass?” When you find something, jump on it.”

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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