Ordinarily Outstanding

I was part of a fascinating conversation yesterday which came together under the banner of The Petersham Project. There’ll be more about that later, for now I want to retell a story I recalled about a guy I worked with named Trevor.

Trevor supported a lot of sales teams when I worked for BT. Sales people aren’t known for delivering reports on time, keeping sales databases up to date, doing performance reviews etc etc, but I tried to help Trevor by being timely and accurate and in return he was enormously helpful to me, and many others.

Trevor delivered his work in an understated manner, I talked with him about this often and he would say ‘I’m just doing my job’. And he is right and he is one of the best examples of someone just doing their job that I’ve ever seen. Reminders from Trevor would be timely and friendly. Mistakes would be corrected and pointed out to you nicely, so you might not do it again next time. Simple, ordinary stuff, done in a thoroughly outstanding way. Trevor’s behaviour stood out also because the prevailing atmosphere was largely toxic. At times (not always I hasten to add)  we had people in positions of power behaving tyranically and often that transmitted through the organisation resulting in people seeming to take pleasure in others misfortunes. I may come back to this toxicity another time, for now I just thought it was important to help contextualise Trevor and the fact he chose to work in the wonderful way he did.

At the end of one year, Trevor was recognised for his efforts with an Outstanding appraisal. In BT we had five appraisal grades: Outstanding, Very Good, Good, Generally Satisfactory, and Needs Improvement. Outstanding and Needs Improvement were like hen’s teeth, really rare. In terms of trying to measure performance, the company had become great at aiming for mediocrity, and of course it’s easier to manage folk if they’re all ‘doing OK’, right? Interestingly, after being in receipt of an Outstanding, Trevor spoke with me a few times about feeling pressure to ‘up his game’. He didn’t want to, and as someone who worked with him I didn’t need him to either, Trevor’s work was spot on. This approach seemed to be getting him down.

I’ve not seen or spoken with Trevor for over three years now, but his behaviour has made a lasting impression on me. So too has the rather slavish way that he was then expected to up his already outstanding game. We don’t all want to be rock stars, so why is there a constant drive and pressure on our people to behave that way?