2 Steps To Becoming A High Achiever

Photo courtesy of Dr. Morten Hansen

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Can you be more productive by actually doing less? Hello, everyone. I'm Kevin Kruse. Welcome to the LEADx Show, where we're helping you to stand out and to get ahead as a leader. Our quote of the day: “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable” — Kenyan proverb. Who knows who originally said it? That's the attribution I've got.

Our guest today is a management professor at U.C. Berkeley, and he's been honored by Thinkers50, being named as one of the top management thinkers in the world. He's the co-author, with Jim Collins, of the New York Times Bestseller, Great by Choice, and his new book is Great At Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More. Our guest is Dr. Morten Hansen. Morten, welcome to the show.

Dr. Morten Hansen: Thank you. It's a pleasure being here.

Kruse: I'm looking forward to talking about your new book in just a minute, but I have a tradition. I always ask our guests the same first question, because I think we can learn a lot from failures. I'm selfish. I want to learn from your failures, not just my own. Give us a story of one of your best failures.

Hansen: Yeah, you know, I've got many of those. Here's one that sounds a little trivial, but it isn't. It's actually quite a large failure. When I was doing my PhD studies at Stanford, you have to produce a draft of your thesis, and I gave it to my thesis advisor at the time, which was Professor Jeff Pfeffer at Stanford Business School. He read it, and he came back, and he said, “You know, it isn't particularly good. It has some weaknesses, some holes in arguments. You need to improve this draft.”

I said, “I'm going to show him.” I worked like mad on this draft. I added footnotes. I added data. I added arguments. I bolstered my sentences, and then I gave it back to Jeff.

Then he came back, and he said, “Well, now it's much worse,” because what I'd done is that I had added stuff. I had added more information, not less. He said, “Now it's cluttered. There is no simplicity. There is no elegance to it anymore.” Then I had to rework the whole thing again, almost starting from scratch, really. This is what you've been working on for two years.

Kruse: Wow.

Hansen: What I learned was that more is not always better, and just adding things to, in this case, a draft, is not better. I think that was a very good lesson, that you want to have elegant, simple, straightforward prose in this case or in any other endeavor, and so a very good lesson that came out of that, but at the time, fail or stay, they hurt in the moment, don't they?

Kruse: They sure do.

Hansen: If we can think of them … I think it's a great sort of attitude that you have, that there are no real failures. They are opportunities for learning. It stinks, but one needs to learn. This was a good learning for me. It actually benefited me later on, when I had to turn it into academic articles, that I learned a very good lesson early on.

Kruse: I'm just curious, because obviously, you went on to have a fabulous career. Do you ever bring this up to Jeff when you see him, about his feedback to your original dissertation?

Hansen: Yeah, he has a memory like an elephant, Jeff.

Kruse: He brings it up to you.

Hansen: I have mentioned it several times. Yeah, he mentions other things to me. Here the other day he said I was an unusual candidate. Before the qualifying exam after the first year, I took a month break in the summer, and he thought no other students have ever done that. Being European, I understand the benefit of taking restorative breaks, as Dan Pink talks about in his new book, When. Anyway, so yes, I think it's a good lesson, now that I took it.

Kruse: It sounds like you've been able to teach each other a few things about different ways to work.

Hansen: Yeah, we need breaks in life, too, if you want to—

Kruse: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, we don't … Especially here in the States, we don't take enough of those breaks, whether it's throughout our workday or throughout the work year, I believe, right?

Hansen: Right.

Kruse: Morten, your new book is Great At Work: How Top Performers Work Less And Achieve More. I like to think of it as an up-to-date and evidence-based version of the classic, Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but yours is based on some pretty rigorous data. One of the keys you say is “Do less, but then obsess.” What do you mean by that?

Hansen: We've been told for many years now that you should focus at work. The problem with that statement is that it's not exactly accurate. We need to be a little more fine-tuned. This is what I mean. The “do less, then obsess,” really has two components to it. The first component is that you need to have that focus, which means choosing a set of priorities and how important that is. The top performers in my day, they were really hyper-focused in that sense, but that is not enough.

You also need to go all in on those few things you focus on. You can't just apply average effort. They need to be intense, targeted effort. It's a two-step process: being very good at prioritizing, and then dedicating all your resources, attention, and your fanatic attention to detail into excelling in those few things. I call that obsess on purpose, because obsession sounds a little harsh, that you need to obsess, but you really need to dedicate yourself to excel in those few things. That's what I mean by that obsession.

Kruse: Yeah, it's fascinating. I was actually interviewing another guest earlier today, and he was finding, in one of his studies of high achievers, that … very similar. He says, they often know exactly what they want to achieve, and then any decision they have to make or any choice of how to use their time, they just ask, is this going to get me closer to that goal or not?

Hansen: Exactly.

Kruse: If it is, that's a yes. If it's off to the side, then it's an easy no. It's quite, quite clear for them.

Hansen: Yes, exactly. You've got to have that very clear set of priorities. You mentioned the word no. If you're going to focus, you have to be able to say no. I think it's got to be one of the most important professional skills for people. I also would say, especially when you're starting out in your career, when you are looking to advance, maybe from a midpoint to more senior roles, at that point in your career, many people, including myself when I started out, think that the best way is to say yes. Please your boss. Please colleagues. Please senior people. The more you can say yes and then deliver, the more they're going to say, “Well, there's a team player. There's a good colleague,” and then you get promoted. That's a very dangerous strategy, because when you say yes too often, it's going to come back to hurt you, because at some point you're going to spread yourself too thin, and that means that your quality of work is going to go down, and then people are going to start noticing.

The present wasn't as sharp as it should be. He wasn't as prepared for the meetings as he should have been. There seem to be some error rates in his spreadsheet, and so on.

Kruse: Yeah, I remember being confused around that lesson. It was almost 30 years ago, one of my first jobs, and I was working in a pharmaceutical company, very low level, almost administrative, very young. The senior managing director there … It was a Friday, late, almost five o'clock already. Everyone was gone, but he was trying to get this package together for FedEx, this report, and I said, “I'll stay. I'll stay with you. I'll help you do it,”—

Hansen: Right, right.

Kruse: Thinking this is good. I can impress the boss and show my effort.

Hansen: Yes, right, exactly.

Kruse: One other guy who had stayed, he said, “Kevin,” he says, “It was good maybe once, but you just trained him that he can wait until the last minute next week, and you will come and stay late and do this for him.”

Hansen: Did that happen?

Kruse: I didn't stay in the organization long enough. I had other things.

Hansen: Yeah, you would be the Friday night shift guy.

Kruse: Yeah, that's exactly right. That's exactly right. You talk about the importance of saying no, and that leads me to my next question. There's many of our listeners, who are saying, “Well, sure, I would like to do less, but my boss gives me more and more,” so, practically speaking, what could somebody do to say no to their boss?

Hansen: Yeah, here's the practical advice. Let's say you're working on two projects, and your boss comes around and says, “Hey, can you take on a third one?” Now, you have a dilemma, because if you're doing the three, you're not going to do them as well as you really want to. There's just simply not enough hours in the day, okay?

A good tactic is to put the burden back on the boss, and that is to say, “What would you like me to prioritize? What should I do first?” Now you are asking the boss to set a priority for you. I feel that's a fair question because the job of a manager is to prioritize. That's what they're being paid for. That's why they are managers. It's totally fair to do that.

Now, of course, your boss might just respond, “Well, can't you do all three?” You then have to say, “Well, if you want me to do excellent work, we need to prioritize among these three, so, which one should I concentrate on doing first, and second?” Again, you're just pushing back gently. Here's the very important thing in that communication. Make sure you say it explicitly that you want to concentrate on the few and prioritize in order to do excellent work and not to be a slacker.

Kruse: Right.

Hansen: You need to say something like, “If I do all three, the quality will have some problems, because we don't have the resources. I really would like to prioritize here, because then I can do exceptional work.” You're just saying it. Of course, then, you also have to deliver on that, but that is a technique, back on the boss and just communicate why. The reason is this is the path to excellent work, which the boss should really appreciate.

Kruse: What I like about that advice so much is being a boss who, probably at times, gives too much work out, it's not my intention to overwork people, but sometimes I legitimately forget all the other things that they're working on, even if I'm the one who gave it to them.

Hansen: Right, yeah, yeah, that's a great point.

Kruse: If they could just come back—

Hansen: Yeah, I mean, that boss may not remember that he has already given you five things to do, right?

Kruse: Right, that's exactly right.

Hansen: Oh yeah, okay, that's a great point. You need to communicate, “Look, I'm working on these five assignments. Now, you've given me a sixth assignment.”

“Oh, really? Okay, well it sounds like you have too much on your plate. I'm going to ask someone else.”

Kruse: Yeah, yeah.

Hansen: Now, there might be emergencies, where you need to chip in, like you did that Friday night, and I think it's okay, and this is not an average thing, but if you become the yes person, their go-to person, like always piling on more work on your plate, and if you're really good at it, you deliver, but you get into this category that I call “Do more, then stress.” These are people who take on a lot of things, and then they stress and work really hard to try to accomplish all of it. I am very often like that myself.

Kruse: Sure.

Hansen: What we found in our study is that top performers are saying “no more,” they're concentrating more, and then they go all in, and they perform better, and then they do more, then it stresses people. That's a good lesson.

Kruse: That's a great lesson. Another area that I found surprising and certainly interesting in your book is you give the advice … Well, many people give the advice, follow your passion, but you say that's not enough, to follow your passion, so what do you mean by that?

Hansen: Yeah, if you go to the commencement ceremony at many colleges, that come up a little later in the year, there will be a speaker on the podium. He will say, “Follow your passion. I did that, and look how successful I am,” right? “Do what you love. Find something you love, and then do it.” Okay, there is a bit of a selection bias there, because only passionate and successful people get to speak at those ceremonies, right? They're very passionate, and failures do not get invited up on those podiums, so we've got this thing called selection bias.

The problem with the statement is as follows: Follow your passion really means let passion dictate what you should be doing, regardless of all the consideration, because if you become a pragmatist, then you're not really following your passion. The problem with that is it really is oriented to what excites you. Passion means, what can the world give to you? Excitement, satisfaction, engagement, things you like. It's almost a hedonistic quality, if you think about it, but there's a part missing, and that is what you can contribute to others. I call it purpose. Many people call that purpose. It's a very plain definition: Do what contributes. What value do you create in your job? What can you contribute to the organization, its customers, and so on? That is what you can give to the world, so it's very different from passion.

That, it turns out for performance, is more important, at least in our dataset. Purpose is more important than passion. Now, it is the combination of the two that creates the best performance. My advice, especially to people who are earlier on in their career, maybe even just starting their career and starting to really get going on their career, is not just running around looking for what they can be passionate about. It is also to ask the question, what is my purpose? I often ask, “What is your personal purpose statement? What it that you contribute that is unique to you and that is great?”

Kruse: Let me ask a little bit more about identifying your purpose. When you describe it, and in your own life, is it about in what ways you want to give back or is it who do you want to serve, or some combination of those?

Hansen: It's some combination. I think purpose is also a misunderstood word. We think of it as some kind of societal benefit only, like I'm going to work to alleviate poverty. Well, let's face it. Most jobs and careers are not oriented in those directions. What we found in our data is a lot of people feel like they have purpose in their job, even though the job itself doesn't sound like one of those that bring societal benefits.

Here's a good example. One of the case studies in the book is about a concierge at a luxury hotel in Quebec, in Canada. Now, we might not think of a concierge job as something special that has purpose, but she thinks that her job has purpose, and it has to her, and that is to serve the clients who comes to the hotel on their vacation to try to have a good experience. We know, from research, that experience is what drives happiness, to a large extent. She's trying to give people a good experience. That is being other-oriented. It is about serving others, and that's her purpose statement. Let's get away a little bit from this idea that it only has to do with things around health care and helping people in need, as though—

Kruse: All grand, yeah.

Hansen: Yeah, this guy … Yeah, exactly, these grand things, though those are great, but purpose is about saying, “Who do I want to serve? My organization and maybe the customers of that organization.” The question is, are you providing value to those customers? That's purpose.

Now, there is a personal meaning to it, as well. It is very important. What is meaningful to you may not be what is meaningful to me. I don't think it would be meaningful to me to be a concierge, but it certainly is to her.

Kruse: Right.

Hansen: There's academic research that shows that people who have exactly the same job, even a trivial job, some people might see it as really meaningful and others as not meaningful at all. For example, some people studied zookeepers. Now, think about that job. You're cleaning up after animals, in some sense. Half of the people in the group said, “This is a trivial, terrible job, just to get a paycheck.” The others said, “This is my purpose, to care for animals who are on the endangered list,” so different interpretations of the same job. It's important to find something that is meaningful to you and then to be other-oriented. How can I contribute value?

Kruse: Good.

Hansen: By the way, there is an additional point to that, which is then you're also more successful, because people are saying, “You know, you're contributing value,” and we value that. That should shape your promotion and keeping a job, because if you're contributing no value, why are you around? Even if you have passion, who cares?

Kruse: Right, right, yeah, so there's that … Again, it's not just a nice thing to have. It maps back to success.

Hansen: Right.

Kruse: You have a chapter in your book about working with others, collaboration. Of course, this is a specialty area for you. You've written on it before.

Hansen: Right.

Kruse: What advice can you give us for collaborating with others?

Hansen: Yeah, so in the book, in this book, Great At Work, we divide these seven factors into two buckets. One is about mastering your own work, and the other bucket is about mastering work with others, because, after all, most workplaces today require you to work with others to achieve. We achieve not only alone, but we achieve with others.

Now, collaboration is an interesting topic. One of the problems is that we tend to over-collaborate in organizations. We have too many task forces, committees, meetings, requests for help, emails flying around, and we spend an inordinate amount of time over collaborations. That's not the case always, but it's often the case. Of course, there's also the opposite problem, under-collaboration.

The question around over-collaboration is how can we scale it back? My advice is this. If you get invited to a collaboration project, or you initiate one, and you have some discretion as to whether you should be doing this, then ask yourself the following question: Do we really, really need to collaborate here? What's the business case for this collaboration?

For example, on a task force, what's really the business case? Asking that question to the others who are doing it is a wonderful thing. One guideline I have is if you're on your own, on your own little team, in your own department, and you think you can do this alone, there's no need to collaborate. If you have the expertise and the required skills to do it, why are you inviting others onto this project, all right? That is a good question to ask. I've done a piece of academic research that shows that if you have all the expertise yourself, there's no point, really, of collaborating, and yet people do it because they feel more comfortable doing it, but comfort alone is not a reason for a good business case.

Kruse: Right.

Hansen: Those are some pieces of advice. Scale it back. When you do, do the few you want to do and do them well.

Kruse: Very good. Back to that primary focus. Morten, I love the book. Again, Great At Work: How Top Performers Work Less And Achieve More. Tell our listeners how they can find out more about you and the book.

Hansen: Yeah, so you can go to my website, where we have additional resources, including a quiz you can take to score yourself against these seven practices. It's www.mortenhansen.com.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.