How certain indispensable employees help in uncertain and ambiguous times
Have you ever noticed how every organisation has at least one indispensable person? How they "play bigger" when others just do their job? These are your impact players, according to Liz Wiseman, author of Impact Players – How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact.
A former corporate executive at Oracle, Liz is now CEO of the Wiseman Group and a respected global thought leader with a top achievement award for leadership from Thinkers50. After the enormous success from her New York Times bestseller Multipliers, Liz Wiseman sought to answer the question:
- Why do some people play at their full potential while others remain underutilised?
In this blog we'll share learnings from our interview with Liz Wiseman's on her research and her book Impact Players, including what makes somebody an impact player, and how to attract more impact players to your team.
What is an Impact Player?
An Impact Player is someone who makes a significant contribution individually, but who also has an enormously positive effect on the entire team. They are smart and talented, with an extraordinary work ethic. What makes Impact Players unique, though, is their "mental game".
- Impact Players don't view everyday challenges as threats, rather they see them as opportunities to add value.
This definition of an Impact Player comes from a research project conducted by Liz and her Wiseman Group colleagues. They spoke to 170 leaders in 10 countries from companies including Adobe, NASA, Salesforce, SAP, Splunk, Google, LinkedIn, and Target about their most competent individual contributors.
3 Types of Contributors
These discussions revealed 3 categories of contributors:
- High-impact contributors: Those who are doing work of exceptional value and impact.
- Typical contributors: The vast majority of people who are doing solid (if not great) work.
- Under-contributors: Smart, talented people who are playing below their capability level.
5 Key Differences in Approach
Typical and under contributors lead to "a job well done" but high-impact contributors (or "Impact Players") do more, and this broadly falls into 5 key differentiator groups.
- While others do their job, Impact Players do the job that’s needed.
- While others wait for direction, Impact Players step up and lead.
- While others escalate problems, Impact Players move things across the finish line.
- While others attempt to minimize change, Impact Players learn and adapt to change.
- While others add to the load, Impact Players make heavy demands feel lighter.
Impact Players Target Their Efforts
We learn from the study that small differences in how we think and behave can have an enormous impact in the value of our work.
For example, each Impact Player understood what their leaders considered valuable, and they targetted their efforts where it had the most impact and influence and where the greatest number of people stood to benefit.
Given Impact Players were found across a variety of job types, at all levels, and in every industry the research team encountered, leaders should be hiring for and searching for these high-impact contributors on their team.
Impact Players do the job that’s needed
As the world gets messier, more complicated, more complex and more connected it's getting harder to match employees to the work that needs to be done. Much of the work is "everyone's job, yet no-one's job," says Liz. Enter the Impact Player. Instead of finding messy problems a distraction from their job, they see them as a chance to be useful. They do the job that’s needed, not just their job. Liz terms this “What’s Important Now,” or “W.I.N.” Managers love people doing things without being asked, and Impact Players are problem solvers.
Impact Players step up, then step back.
96% of high-impact contributors always or often take charge without waiting to be directed, compared with 20% of typical contributors, a Wiseman survey found. When roles are unclear, instead of waiting for direction Impact Players use the opportunity to provide leadership. "They can both lead and follow, they pass the ball and share the glory," says Liz.
- Do things without being asked.
- Figure it out themselves.
- Make their leaders and their team look good.
In essence, they have a "stewardship mentality" and see themselves as capable of leading, making an impact, and contributing to larger goals.
Impact Players finish stronger.
Impact Players get the job done in full. If there are unforeseen obstacles, Impact Players don’t view them as added hassles. They take a stab at the issue - as one manager put it: ‘Instead of like a cat - dropping it like a dead rat at your front door’. They also see it through to the end. 98% of the time Impact Players always or often get the job done without being reminded, compared with 48% of the time for Typical Contributors and 12% for Under Performers.
"Their strength lies in understanding that problems are constantly lurking around corners," says Liz in Impact Players. They then become masters of improvisation and redirection.
Impact Players ask and adjust.
Making micro-changes doesn't sound like having an impact, but making small adjustments is key to the effectiveness of Impact Players.
Impact Players are agile learners who see moving targets as a reason to build new capabilities. They don’t stick to what they know best. Instead, they embrace change. Because they are self-assured, they respond positively to coaching and feedback, and micro-adjust their behaviours. In this way, they exhibit a learning or growth mindset.
Impact Players make work light
While Typical Contributors are highly capable, they are like the massive petrol-guzzling Hummer; it will get you there but it consumes a lot of resources in the process. Impact Players are like the ideal car that performs exceptionally, requiring little effort to achieve and maintain that performance.
"Impact Players hold the fundamental belief that I am an important part of the team," says Liz. They not only do their job well, they help their colleagues do their jobs well too.
Perhaps, most importantly, they have a sense of humour.
98% of top executives said they preferred working with employees with a sense of humour and 84% believe they do better work, according to Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas's 2021 book Humor, Seriously.
5 Key Factors to Building A Team of Impact Players
Liz's research led her to conclude that people around the world arrive at work with the mindset of wanting to contribute at their fullest. They want to work in a place where:
- intelligence and talent are maximised
- people are deeply engaged
- people are learning rapidly
- people are contributing in full measure
If people want to do their best, managers should be able to build an entire team of people creating value and "playing with impact." Here are 5 ways to bring that possibility closer.
Hire For The Qualities That Are Most Difficult to Develop
The best strategy for building a team of Impact Players is to hire people who already have the mindset and qualities that are most difficult to develop and then actively cultivate the other qualities. .
These might include:
- Internal locus of control (the belief that you can control the outcomes of events in your life)
- Informality (I don't have to be in charge to lead)
- Opportunity (I see challenges as opportunities)
- Bring fun (A sense of humour)
- An ability to both lead and follow
Hiring candidates who are self-directed, community-minded, have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and are fun to work with, even in stressful times, is a good start to building a high-impact team!
Create a Positive Environment
Oddly enough, the best leaders aim for a workplace that is both comfortable and intense. In our interview Liz Wiseman said "The Great Resignation" could well be partly down to employees not being challenged.
A quote from Impact Players is "Once leaders create a great place to work, they expect people to do great work."
Highlight What's Important
You can help the team to see what is important at any given time by defining "What’s Important Now" (W.I.N.) and keeping it front and centre. Think of it as sharing your mental to-do list, suggests Liz. When at Oracle she would post 3 top priority iniatives (no more than 10 words in total) on the door of her office. Managers of virtual teams could start meetings holding up such a list.
Model the behaviour you want to see. For example, let others see you both lead and follow.
Critique the work, not the person
People need two pieces of information to achieve top performance. The first is clear direction "What is the target, and why is it important? The second is performance feedback "Am I hitting the target?"
Insist the work is finished by holding them accountable, and also give them feedback. Think of it as critical information to allow them to calibrate and adjust their approach. Treat feedback like helpful information and not personal judgement, says Liz.
Flag behaviour you appreciate
When someone does something to make your work easier as a manager, say, "When you do X, it's easier for me to do Y." When teams are remote or hybrid, it's easy for people to miss context, veer off agenda, or get stymied by obstacles, says Liz. Managers can help by providing CONTEXT (share the why of the work), CLARITY (provide a clear statement of work), COLLABORATION (create forums where tough issues get tackled, and CONNECTION (be intentional about creating connections).
Learn How to Be An Impact Player
Most employees want to make an impact at work, and managers want to hire Impact Players. After all, they are agile, easy to work with and know how to get the job done even in times of uncertainty. In her upcoming Global Headliner live virtual event, How The Best Leaders Hire & Keep Impact Players, Liz Wiseman dives into what makes an impact player special, how to spot an impact player when hiring, and how to multiply the impact player effect to empower and inspire.
Best of all, her research shows when an Impact Player is placed near others the qualities spread. Eventually everyone rises.
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