The 3-level Theory of Performance


Author James Michael Lafferty flanked by Olympian Nadia Comaneci and Filipino world bowling champion Paeng Nepomuceno at a press conference

Always over-deliver. This is how I won five Olympic gold medals,’ says Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci.

As Leonardo da Vinci famously said, “ Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.”

Anything in life can be made horribly complex. Over-engineered. Confused and complicated. And this certainly is true for how individual performance is assessed.

I have seen all kinds of matrices, grids, tables and complex readings. Abominations created to make a simple task more complicated. But the evaluation systems that work best, and make the most sense, always seem to boil down to three levels of performance. Three, and only three!

And it’s interesting. Several people I know well, whom I deeply respect, and who are among the best in the world at what they do, have all developed their own empirical theories on how to differentiate human performance. And funnily enough, they all independently conclude there are only three levels of performance!

Let’s go through each, and I think you will see for yourself how much each theory makes sense.

The first comes from a colleague I used to work with at Procter & Gamble, by the name of Tarek Farahat. We were both country CEOs together, and today Tarek is CEO of JBS, a Brazilian meatpacking company, one of the largest in the world.

Tarek put performance into three buckets, all relating to how an individual would manage incremental investment into their business:

“Less for more.” These are people, you give them more money to invest, and still they give you less. So you spend more and get less. These are the lowest-level performers.

“More for more.” These are the people, you give them +10 percent more money, and they give you +10 percent more results. You give more; you get more. It’s proportional. These are “good” employees.

“More for less.” These are your exceptional talents. They deliver more than their targets and turn some money back! Or, you must cut their budgets, but they still creatively find a way to over-deliver and bring more in spite of less funds. These are the people you promote to the top of the company. And fast!

From the moment I read it, I can recall smiling and agreeing with my old friend. I can certainly think of all three types in every job I have been in. I have people who never hit their numbers, and no matter how much more money you give, they keep going down while offering up many excuses. You have people who give you more when they are given more. And then you have that small sliver of people, the exceptional talents, who beat their numbers and underspend the budgets at the same time!

On Nadia Comaneci and perfect 10s

The second example comes from Nadia Comaneci. Now, if this is a new name to you, well, you must be under 40 years old! Nadia is widely considered the greatest female gymnast ever. Competing for Romania, Nadia won five Olympic gold medals in 1976 and 1980, including the first ever “perfect 10” being recorded in Olympic history.

A few years ago, I had Nadia come and speak to one of my teams on “How to become the best,” and she was asked a question, “How did you win five Olympic gold medals? What made you different? They make an excuse, or they say, ‘Seven is good enough, why do 10?’ These people never win and are the perennial losers in whatever field of endeavor they are in. They cut corners and do sloppy work.

“The second group of people, the coach tells them to do 10 exercises, and they do 10. These people will win, sometimes. They at least do what is asked.

“And then there is the rare, third group, and I am in that third group. The coach tells them to do 10 exercises, and I always did 15. Always over-deliver. And this is how I won five Olympic gold medals.”

Again, it’s amazing. I sit and reflect on this, and think not only of athletes I coached, but of also people who have worked — or work — for me, in all my various roles. And I can clearly see all three. I have people today who cut corners and refuse to do work to 100 percent. They make mistakes and offer up excuses and always say, “It’s good enough.” And they are at the bottom of the organization. I have many people who do what is asked, not more, but precisely what is asked. And I have these rare gems — people who always over-deliver — and when you ask for 10, they give you 15. And these are my superstars.

Everest & the adversity advantage

The final example came just recently from my old friend, blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind man to summit Mt. Everest and the famous “7 Summits,” the tallest peaks on each continent. Erik was recently in Dubai and Amman speaking to my organization, and shared some research conducted by himself and Dr. Paul Stoltz: “We researched for our book, The Adversity Advantage, and discovered three fundamental types of people in life:

Climbers. These are people who never stop growing, never stop moving forward. As soon as they climb one peak, they go off in search of another. They have a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. These people end up being the great achievers in society and most fulfilled in their personal lives.

Campers. These are former climbers. But somewhere along the way, they decided they didn’t want to keep climbing. They preferred to stay where they are and “camp,” and rest on their laurels. Think of all the people one knows who refuse to step up to new challenges and just live on past glories.

Quitters. These are people so beaten down by whatever circumstances, they don’t climb, and they don’t camp. They go down the mountain. Their lives get progressively worse.

And for a third time, I find myself smiling. I can again reflect and envision very specific people in my organizations who fit all three. I can think of those people who just keep growing and growing, fearless to take on new jobs and new challenges. Ready to move and live in a new place. My best. I can think of people who were once good but live on old stories. Who, when they get fired, always start by saying, “But I gave the company X years of service! I was salesman of the year in 1994!” They miss the fact we all must keep climbing and nobody can sit still. And, unfortunately, I can think of people in the third category.

And there you have it, the power of simplicity and the three-level theory. Amazing consistency coming from three of the very best people you will ever come across, three wise people who are the finest at what they do.

It’s worth taking a hard look in the mirror. Which one of the three are you?  And, which of the three do you aspire to be?