Luck is generally defined as "events/circumstances/forces that bring good fortune to an individual." Although there may be some luck involved in whether an individual performs at a high level or not, exceptional performance is dependent on many factors most of which are more important than luck.

I have always been fascinated by people who are top performers whether they are athletes, teachers, engineers, surgeons, drillers, chefs, lawn mowers, recruiters, accountants, lawyers, receptionists, salespeople, etc. How did they become drawn to this job function? What did the road look like for them to become a top performer? What is unique about the person as an individual that helped them become a top performer?

At Goodfriend & Associates, we get a special satisfaction in helping individuals (leaders, managers and key contributors) become better at how they perform. I am proud of our track record with coaching individuals to help them overcome their developmental challenges and obstacles to higher performance.

Maybe it’s because I really do believe that people can change. Maybe it’s because I believe that performance is strongly influenced by a commitment to improve and dedication to skill building. No, not all people will improve their performance. Also, not all people that improve their performance will be able to sustain the changes they made. But we have found the following to be indicators of those individuals who can change and improve their performance:

  • The individual really listens to and learns from the feedback given to him/her even when it is difficult to hear it
  • The individual is willing to look at what makes him/her tick – and consider both the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in their personality/style.
  • The individual is willing to make a commitment to achieving specific developmental or performance improvement objectives through an action plan that will result in a positive change
  • The individual begins to worry less about what can go wrong in their development process, accepts the development journey as his/her own and begins becoming more disciplined in taking his/her improvement one step at a time

As many of you know if you have been a reader of Goodfriend Insights in the past, I am also a fan of sports especially baseball. I have found over the years that baseball is not only a game I like to watch and like to play, but it is also a game that I can relate to the business world.

About a year ago, my son’s Little League brought in a speaker who is an accomplished sports psychologist from Rice University – Dr. John Eliot. I really enjoyed his presentation and purchased his book: Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance. The book helped validate why some of my models/approaches were working to help individuals their performance.

I am now utilizing some of the key concepts from Dr. Eliot’s book and presentation in my process for how I coach my clients on their individual performance improvement. Some of those concepts that are key for an individual to achieve more and perform at a higher level include:


What often distinguishes the top performer is that they are personally driven through internal core motivators, not by external factors. So what are those internal motivators? It’s different for each person. An auto mechanic might like the satisfaction of the “light bulb going on” from identifying the cause of the mechanical problem. A human resources recruiter might get special enjoyment when they can “see” the smile through the phone when the candidate finds out they are getting an offer.

I asked my son about his motivation about hitting a baseball soon after I heard Dr. Eliot speak --- about a year ago. He had always been a good hitter but he had been struggling at the plate. It seemed like it didn’t bother him that he was striking out a lot. My son’s father (that would be me) has been known to give him too much advice about baseball, to the point where he stops listening. So I asked him, “What do you like about batting?” He said, “It’s fun hitting the ball.” I then asked, “What’s fun about it?” He replied, “I like sound the bat makes when I hit the ball.” To be honest, I was “floored” by his response. My 8 year-old son (at the time) communicated what drives him internally at his core about playing his favorite sport. It wasn’t because his dad likes baseball. It wasn’t because all the parents cheer when he gets a hit. It was because of the “ting” sound of the aluminum bat hitting the ball.

I see this in my own aging recreational baseball career. At the age of 47, I play in a hard ball league with a team of mostly 40+ players. We play in the 25+ league and actually won the championship in the fall. When I re-started my baseball career at the age of 43 after a 30-year layoff, I was promptly inserted in right field. Although I played a little bit of outfield when I was a kid, I never really mastered the art of reading a flyball after it comes off the bat. After 4 years, I am becoming better but I still have a lot to learn. Occasionally, I get the opportunity to come in and play first base or third base. It’s what I played when I was a kid and I still like it. I started thinking about what I liked about playing the infield and I came to the conclusion that I like fielding groundballs. So what is it about fielding groundballs? It’s playing the hop or reading the bounce of the groundball from the first hop to the time it reaches me. Then the thought that went through me was “it’s like I’m dancing with the groundball.” Now when I told my wife about this revelation, she asked me if she should be jealous of the baseball. She actually thought it was pretty funny considering a great dancer like her has a husband with about 4 left feet. I’m really that bad of a dancer. My wife seems to dance like the music just physically moves her around based on the rhythm and beat. With me, I keep bumping into the music and it keeps knocking me over. But not when I’m fielding a groundball. If there was music playing while the groundball is hopping towards me, I bet I would move to the rhythm and beat of that groundball.

Once you let your inner motivations drive you, how can you increase your commitment to becoming an outstanding performer? Maybe part of it might be working hard but I also believe as Dr. Eliot puts it as “putting all your eggs in one basket.” You can’t be the best at too many things. To be committed to everything is to be committed to nothing. So what can you dedicate yourself to -- that you feel is your calling, that stirs something inside you. It may not even pay you the most (at least now) and you may not be (at least for now) considered a top performer. In the business setting, what part of your job, do you really get a kick out of? If you are a geologist, what is it about the study of rocks and fluids that make you want to dedicate yourself to being the best? If you are a supply chain manager, maybe you are personally driven to design contracting vehicles that will result in contractor-driven improvement in the overall performance of a key operating function, not just financial gain through favorable contract terms.


When we hear the word confidence, we think of a person who is positive, optimistic and expresses that they will be successful at the task they are trying to accomplish. To improve performance, an individual should be confident in the key competencies for their job or discipline.

As I will discuss later, many outstanding performers don’t have to think about what they’re doing when it’s time to perform. Just ask top singers, athletes, surgeons. They are what they call “in the zone” or “locked in.” To be able to do this, their mental and physical skills must be practiced in the laboratory, rehearsal or practice so they are confident when the time comes to perform.

I have been a facilitator, consultant and coach for over 16 years now. In my first 5 years in the early 1990’s, I was learning my new profession and there wasn’t much training for these skills back then. As I looked back, I wonder how my clients ever retained me for more than one project. I was so focused on managing the time and also had difficulty understanding what to listen for. Therefore, I had a hard time reading between the lines of the communication. I was trying to figure out what I was doing during the meeting which is not a good formula for being an outstanding performer.

For those of you that work with me now as a facilitator, you know that I work hard at developing an agenda that will meet the needs of the participants as well as make the meeting valuable in its outcomes. But when the meeting begins, I have the confidence that I can “be in the moment” – because I have prepared a lot. I can now manage the time without thinking, I can listen for the issues and raise the questions around the issues in a constructive manner. I’m not worried about what to do next and I feel like I know what to do to help make the meeting successful.

This is about building “muscle memory.” I have been hearing this term more and more around baseball coaches for Little League. My son goes to Terry Puhl, a former Astro, for his hitting instruction. Terry works with him on his batting mechanics to the point that he doesn’t have to think about it – muscle memory. It allows him to be in the moment and just see the ball coming towards him while he’s up to bat. That’s what confidence building is all about.

But there is also mental preparation. In sports, we often get nervous when it’s our turn in the game. But in business also, nervousness and fear of failure can result when the pressure is on. These conditions usually impact performance and cause us to focus on the obstacle rather than on the skills to achieve our goal. Mental preparation, such as the following, is a key factor in becoming more confident in your competence:

  • When you prepare, practice and build your skills, do it in a frame of mind where you focus on what is possible and how to make it possible. This can make the difference between an outstanding performer and a good performer whether it’s an outfielder diving for a fly ball or an operations manager who is recommending an innovative plant redesign. These high performers need to be in a frame of mind that is focused on how to make an out-of-box solution a reality – instead of focusing on the obstacles to success (the approver will never go for it, looking at cost without considering possible value, etc.)
  • Pressure needs to be seen as a good thing so you can use it to your advantage. I first noticed this when I was very involved in Toastmasters to work on my presentation and speaking skills. I remembered being very nervous before it was my turn to speak but somehow when I started speaking I became a more dynamic speaker than normal because I used my nervousness to create energy in my speech. Many professional speakers, athletes, lawyers, surgeons, etc. will tell you that they do the same when it’s game time. I don’t know if it’s this way with most of you but my stomach feels very uneasy when I’m nervous. If I’m successful at channeling that nervousness productively, it goes to my voice when I speak, to my eyes when I’m batting, etc.

So why is confidence building and preparation important in a traditional business setting? What would it look like in a traditional business setting?

No, I don’t believe in practicing like athletes do. Can you imagine an administrative assistant taking typing practice every day with their typing coach who times their performance and evaluates the effectiveness of every keystroke?

There are more practical ways to practice and build confidence in the traditional business setting:

  • Training and development – Increase confidence through your training and development programs to prepare for outstanding performance during “game time.” Build simulations into the training where skills (and the mental preparation) can be practiced as it is needed to increase confidence. Build time into the process after the training to practice what you learn in the training. If a coaching program is available, ensure that the coaching includes simulated opportunities (even if it’s one on one with your coach) to start building that physical and mental muscle memory.
  • Lessons learned – Since many skills in the traditional business world are learned in the process of delivering real work, take more opportunities to do debriefs on your work and capture lessons learned. I was recently visiting with a Drilling Manager for an oil and gas company who explained how his function is capturing lessons learned for each field where they drill. This will not only be a vehicle to help learn about actual experience in that specific oil field but will also serve to transfer knowledge so less experienced drilling engineers will be able to improve their skills and their confidence.


When I listened to Dr. Eliot’s presentation, he discussed a pitcher on the Rice University baseball team during one of the seasons that Rice won the College World Series. This pitcher was one of the top pitchers on the Rice team as well as in college baseball. But as the games got more important in the College World Series, he started having difficulty locating the strike zone with his pitches and becoming wild. With his troubles on the big stage came the label of a “choker” or that he couldn’t handle the pressure.

After talking with this individual, Dr. Eliot found that the pitcher was putting a lot of pressure on himself to win the game through his pitching. But the pitcher couldn’t control the outcome of the game because the outcome will be influenced not only by his performance but all the others involved – the execution of fielding and hitting of players on his team, the execution of fielding and hitting for the opponent’s players, the umpires, the managers and to even some extent the fans. We can influence outcomes through our performance but not control it – in sports, in business or in life. Dr. Eliot was able to focus this pitcher on the concept of “control.” Exceptional performers seem to focus on what they can control – internal factors around how they execute their skills, how they plan the project, how they prepare to deliver on the goal, etc. It is difficult for any individual to control the external factors in business - the market for their services/products, the competition, the financial markets the geopolitical pressures, etc.

Between games in the College World Series, Dr. Eliot went back to building confidence and had the pitcher practice throwing to his catcher getting him to focus on a specific seam in the catcher’s mitt and nothing else. He had the pitcher keep track during his practice how many times his singular focus was on that seam as he pitched. That was something he could control and his pitch location improved along with it.

So what does this mean in business? Well if you are a manager and you have some direct reports that are internally motivated and confident in their competence (through preparation, planning and skill building), give them opportunities to perform even if they have some setbacks. Set clear expectations, avoid micromanaging and expect a commitment to perform using their instincts and preparation. Help them focus on what they can influence or control – not on what they can’t control.

I was working with an executive leading a key organizational function. This executive had been known for micromanaging his direct reports and involving himself in key project decisions and delivery challenges with the team members that report to his direct reports. The executive learned to let his direct reports have more control on what they could influence by setting expectations without being directly involved in ground-level issues. The executive is now getting more from his direct reports. He is also able to spend more time on key strategic issues.

Becoming an exceptional performer is not luck. It takes commitment to a career or discipline where you have some inner motivation to excel. It takes planning, preparation and skill building to increase confidence in your competency. It also takes being “in the moment” when you are doing your work so your instincts and preparation can drive you towards a higher performance.

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As Joe Paterno, head coach of the Penn State (my alma mater) Nittany Lions football team so wisely said, “Excellence is determined from within. Success is determined by others.”

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2006

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  A clever way to explain and consider the Birkman Method. I appreciate you sending this to me!

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