Phil Hauck's TEC Blog

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lee Thayer on High Performance Leadership

My favorite leadership guru is Lee Thayer, now 83-years-old and living in a glass house in the mountains of North Carolina with no fear of confronting anyone as long as it is on high performance leadership!
In August, he presented to a number of my members on his views, which are summarized below.
If you decide to purchase one of his books, be prepared for a difficult read. As he says, "It was difficult to write it, so I want it to be difficult to read."

His books include: “Conversations,” “Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing,” and “Leadership Virtuosity.” He is working on “The Competent Organization.”
Who does he read? Romanian Emile M. Cioran (1911-1995) on philosophy.
Here are some of Thayer’s points:

• Of Delta Airlines: “Sorry, there’s no hope for you.”
Of McDonnell Douglas two decades ago, with its 44 SVPs: “Too much bureaucracy to be high performance.”
• “A high performance organization is one that does everything it does better than anyone else ---- and improves upon that every day --- giving that organization a sustainable competitive advantage.”
• How to objectively see reality: First of all, Self-Deception. You don’t know who you are or they are, so you misinterpret what you are looking at. Make sure you know your Cause. Secondly, start with what people are saying about you. That’s the reality that matters.
• How to recognize a High Performer:
1. He/she sees/recognizes/thinks “out of the box” ... trends that most don’t see easily, not conventional observations.
2. Asks questions about “how to be better.” Are those the questions being asked?
• We don’t measure or pay for Intentions or Entitlements. We measure and pay for Performance.
• Exceptional CEOs ask FOUR questions to every one statement. They are consummate question-askers. They are not in the “Answer Man” trap.
-- We have Habits ... No, Habits have Us!
-- If too used to providing your answers, then get a neck brace which prevents your jaw from working.
• CEO’s job includes:
Setting the Cause/Vision of the organization ... and then “composing” the organization to achieve it. “Here’s our Cause. Do you want to pursue that? If so, join. If not, don’t.
Reading people for their ability to contribute to the CEO’s Cause.
Measuring the things that count ... not just what’s countable.
• “Don’t tell me what you know. Tell me what I need to know.” That will make the organization obscenely effective.
• Micro-Managing: Incompetents will never improve. Competents will leave.
• On Teams: Teams are ineffective because they’re the wrong emphasis. The correct emphasis is on “personal Competence.” Decide the roles you need, and then find people who are the Most Competent in those roles.
• The payoff from “training” itself is small ... but the payoff from an individual with drive to be Competent (more and more Competent, a True Learner) is enormous. A Competent person is ALWAYS Dis-satisfied, always growing before your eyes. If a recruit is interviewing YOU, and not vice versa, you have a “live one.”
-- People don’t learn from their experience, but from their interpretation of that experience. Our job is to help them arrive at the interpretation that best moves us to serve our customer. Thus, each person needs a Mentor, the same mentor for each type of challenge so that the interpretation message is the same.

On Hiring
• Hire people who are in a Learning Mode, not worried about credentials. How many questions did he/she ask you that are of an “advancing his/her knowledge” mode? Approach: Convince me you’re the person for the job! See if the person asks questions, or talks about himself/herself. You want the former to happen before the latter.
• Questions to ask ... and see if the answer reflects prior research and thinking:
1. Tell me the problems we have and what to do about them?
2. What books are you reading?
3. Why do you want to work here?
• Learning is about Changing an Understanding ... not just adding to the knowledge bank.
• Always make the correct decision based on what you know will further reaching your Cause.
-- There will always be collateral damage. Ignore it. It’s a distraction.
• (A college boy is simply a penis with a backpack.)

On Necessity
• An organization’s structure should be determined by its Customers’ Necessities. From that Necessity, you build Competences to serve that cascade.
• Make it Necessary for people to OWN the problem ... if they don’t, their job is threatened, or their income is threatened, or a self-esteem challenge will occur.

On Competence
• The only people who are stressed are those who are incompetent, not yet competent in their roles.
• Competent people will OWN the problem. They will see it as theirs. They will also see what should be others’ problems, and will NOT own them.
• Competent people do not react to general goals. “Be the best I can be.” “Be the employer of choice.” NO! “Make the first team.” “Have a waiting list of at least ten for each job.” YES!
• See the Appendix for a listing of characteristics of The Competent Person.

On Systems
• Have a Role Description ... not activities, but Accomplishments expected at various terms. Does the person aspire to these accomplishments?
• Performance Goals ... What continuing to be best should achieve. Make these Necessities: “Raise contribution to profits by 10% annually.”
-- If they ask How?, say: “I don’t know and I don’t care. That’s not my job. It’s yours! (High Performance people will figure out how to do it.)
• Learning Plans ... that address the shortfalls in reaching the Performance Goals.
• Dumb Systems:
-- Receptionist only trained to greet.
-- Salespeople beating the system ... sales incentive systems generally.
-- People not sharing, knowing stuff that others need.
-- Dumb systems persist just because people are attached to them.
• All Sales Incentive Systems are Dumb Systems:
-- All incentive systems can be gamed, and are.
-- Instead, hire salespeople who are Consummate Learners, constantly increasing their competence ... they will always perform at their peak, and keep getting better. Don’t need a sales incentive system, just a general profit sharing system of some sort. A paradigm that’s often hard to grasp.
• If you have mediocre people, they serve as internal competitors. They impede progress.

• Organization Charts: They should include ALL Stakeholders, including Investors, Customers, Suppliers, Regulators, etc. People should know about all those who impact their job and the organization’s success.
• Caring: “I refuse to allow you to default to yourself. I require you to aspire, to grow, to do things today better than you did them yesterday. You’ll get there!”

Some Quotes
• “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Well, that makes two of us!”
• “I’m not sure ...” “Well, we know that.” “Well, I didn’t.”
• To Ralph Stayer: “You don’t like my price. Okay, let’s do this. You pay me half of that then. If at the end, we meet our agreed-upon goals, you pay me double.”

(Notes by Lee Thayer, in preparation for his next book.)

A competent person –
• Is continuously learning how to perform his or her role(s) today better than yesterday.
• Is ready, willing, and able to own every problem that arises in the performance of his or her role.
• Is capable of anticipating the problems that will arise in the performance of his or her role.
• Is capable of precluding most of the problems that arise, and of obviating all of the others that arise.
• Requires no praise, punishment, or incentives for his or her performance, and is capable of providing a better critique than any other might offer.
• Has learned that growing in competence is its own reward.
• Owns the problems of his or her performance, AND of his or her destiny.
• Seeks out, rather than avoids, challenges.
• Is a question-asker, not an opinion peddler.
• Knows that competent people are happier, more in control of their health and their lives, and live longer.
• Lives by this fundamental premise: Learning = Growth, and Growth = Life.
• Can determine what he or she needs to know, and acquires it.
• Can provide others with what they need to know, when and where they need it.
• Nurtures and demands competence from others.
• Cares for people by refusing to let them default to themselves.
• Is not ambitious, except to be the best there ever was in his or her role/endeavors.
• Loves life.


  1. Phil, Some great business advice and even better quotes! I can't think of many top executives from the retail world who followed the majority of these management nuggets of wisdom, much of which is really just common sense! Certainly, more than a few preached this gospel, but most of the time it was just lip service. Take Care, Dave

  2. This is great business advice if you want to squelch the hopes and desires of your people. After all of this advice I would be very afraid to lead my people into battle for fear of a spear in my back for the callous and impersonal treatment of my team as being simply furniture! People should be treated as such - not utensils. How do you make utensils function as part of a team? The answer to that is simple - good leadership! Make the vision shared - not imposed - then you face revolution -explicit or implicit!