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Talent is everywhere, winning attitude is not. —DAN GABLE
- High-impact contributors: Those who are doing work of exceptional value and impact
- Typical contributors: Smart, talented people who are doing solid (if not great) work
- Under-contributors: Smart, talented people who are playing below their capability level
This book focuses primarily on the distinction between the first two categories in order to explore the subtle, often counterintuitive differences in mindset that become big differentiators in impact.
Impact Players Wear Opportunity Goggles
The approach taken by Impact Players isn’t just marginally different, it is radically different—and it’s rooted in how these professionals deal with situations they cannot control. The typical contributors excelled in ordinary situations, but they were more easily flummoxed by uncertainty and got stuck amid ambiguity. When others may have freaked out or checked out, Impact Players dove into the chaos head-on, much as a savvy ocean swimmer dives into and through a massive oncoming wave rather than panicking and being tumbled in the surf.
A Problem to Avoid
Typical professionals approach difficult situations as if the challenge is a nuisance, lowering their productivity and making it difficult for them to do their job. They see them as problems to run around and avoid rather than tackle directly. What’s more, under-contributors see them as not just threats to productivity but personal threats that could jeopardize their position or organizational status. Where others may spot a single bee but fear an entire swarm, the Impact Player is figuring out how to build a hive and harvest the honey.
An Opportunity to Add Value
The Impact Players see everyday challenges as opportunities. To Impact Players, unclear direction and changing priorities are chances to add value. They are energized by the messy problems that would enervate or foil others. Lack of clarity doesn’t paralyze them; it provokes them. Invitations to make changes are intriguing, not intimidating. Perhaps most fundamentally, they don’t see problems as distractions from their job; rather, they are the job—not just their job, but everyone’s job.
Threat lens vs. Opportunity lens
Impact Players tend to see opportunity where others see threat. Because they see uncertainty and ambiguity as an opportunity to add value, Impact Players react fundamentally differently as well. While others are freezing, Impact Players are getting their arms around the chaos.
The following practices were the five key differentiators we found between Impact Players and their colleagues. Each is a set of behaviors that flow from the belief that opportunity can be found amid ambiguity and challenge.
Do the Job That’s Needed
When dealing with messy problems, Impact Players address the needs of the organization; they venture beyond their assigned job to tackle the real job that needs to be done. Impact Players aim to serve; this orientation prompts them to empathize with their stakeholders, look for unmet needs, and focus where they are most useful. As they do, they increase organizational responsiveness, create a culture of agility and service, and build a reputation as flexible utility players who can be valuable in a variety of roles. In contrast, more typical players operate with a duty-oriented mindset, taking a narrow view of their role and playing their position. While others do their job, Impact Players do the job that needs to be done.
Step Up, Step Back
When it’s clear that something needs to be done but it’s unclear who’s in charge, Impact Players step up and lead. They don’t wait to be asked; they get things started and involve others, even when they’re not officially in charge. They practice a fluid model of leadership—leading on demand rather than by command. They take their cues from the situation, stepping up when needed, but when their stewardship is fulfilled, they step back and follow others with equal ease. Their willingness to both lead and follow creates a culture of courage, initiative, and agility inside their organization. In contrast, when roles are unclear, most players act as bystanders. They assume that other people are in charge and will tell them when they are needed and what to do. While others wait for direction, Impact Players step up and lead.
Impact Players tend to be completion freaks; they stick with things and get the entire job done, even when the job becomes hard and plagued with unforeseen obstacles. They work with a heightened sense of agency and an assumption of personal strength, which prompts them to take ownership, solve problems, and finish jobs without constant supervision. But they don’t just push through roadblocks—they improvise and give themselves permission to do things differently and find better ways of working. And, as they deliver results despite setbacks, they reinforce a culture of accountability and build a reputation as clutch players capable of coming from behind. In contrast, more typical players operate with an avoidance mindset. They take responsible action, but when things get tough they escalate issues up the management chain rather than taking ownership; at worst, they get distracted or discouraged and stall out completely. While others escalate problems, Impact Players move things across the finish line and build strength along the way.
Ask and Adjust
Impact Players tend to adapt to changing conditions faster than their peers because they interpret new rules and new targets as opportunities for learning and growth. They certainly appreciate affirmation and positive feedback, yet they actively seek corrective feedback and contrary views and use this information to recalibrate and refocus their efforts. In the process, they strengthen a culture of learning and innovation, help the organization stay relevant, and build personal reputations as coachable players who up-level their own game and raise the bar for everyone on the team. In contrast, most professionals interpret change as annoying, unfair, or threatening to the stability of their work environment. In volatile conditions, they tend to stick to what they know best and keep playing the game by the rules that validate their current expertise. While others attempt to manage and minimize change, Impact Players are learning and adapting to change.
Make Work Light
When a team is weighed down by increased pressure and unrelenting demands, Impact Players make hard work easier. They provide lift, not by taking on other people’s work but by being easy to work with. They bring a sense of buoyancy and equanimity that reduces drama, politics, and stress and increases the joy of work. By creating a positive and productive work environment for everyone, they reinforce a culture of collaboration and inclusion and develop a reputation as high-performing, low-maintenance players—the type everyone wants to work with. In contrast, when the pressure is on and workloads are at a peak, more typical players tend to seek help rather than offer to help. As this becomes their default response, they add to the burden of already overtaxed teams during difficult times and can become a burden to their leaders and colleagues. While others add to the load, Impact Players make heavy demands feel lighter.
Impact Players Tap into Unwritten Rules
Impact Players seem to understand the rules of the workplace better than others. They figure out the unwritten rule book—the standards of behavior that one should follow in a particular job or organization. They tune in to the needs of the organization and determine what’s important to their immediate colleagues; they figure out what needs to get done and ascertain the right way to get it done.
This rule book is unwritten not because managers are secretive or no one has bothered to publish it but because the rules are also tacit for most managers, held at a level below conscious awareness.
Impact Generates Investment
The way Impact Players think about and respond to uncertainty and ambiguity makes them especially fit for the challenges of the modern work world. They are flexible, quick, strong, agile, and collaborative—the type of people you want on your team when your world is rattled or something goes awry. Impact Players will help you find solutions while others point fingers at problems.
As one manager put it, the Impact Player was “someone I would want to be trapped on a desert island with” compared to another employee, who is “someone I would have to help survive.” While others might build a shelter and hunker down during a storm, the Impact Player is building a windmill to create power. In challenging environments, Impact Players are assets that appreciate over time.
When managers realize that they can invest an ounce of leadership and receive a ton of value in return, they continue to invest—and reinvest—in these players. They typically entrust them with increased responsibilities and additional resources. Because they are efficient, managers give Impact Players their most precious resource: the manager’s time and reputation. Impact Players tend to be the beneficiaries of extra mentoring and are called up often to represent the manager to the larger organization or external environment. However, the Impact Players
weren’t blessed with trust and resources from the get-go; they earned it. The wisest of them proved early on that their colleagues could count on them 100 percent. By providing quick returns and operating with consistency and integrity, they catalyze the investment cycle.
Play All In
If you are an aspiring leader, the Impact Player mentality is your path to leadership. When you think and work this way, you are viewed as a leader, and when leadership opportunities arise, you will be a natural pick. For those of you who may not be interested in being a manager per se, the mindsets and practices we’ve explored will put you on a path to greater impact. Your ideas will get heard, and your work will have greater influence. As an Impact Player, you will be a difference maker.
While the career path for the most impactful players may lead to greater rewards, the real prize might be a better work experience: greater choice, more fun, deeper fulfillment. Indeed, the best reason for playing at your fullest may just be for the experience itself. Mike Singletary, NFL Hall of Fame linebacker, asked, “Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play.” Do it for the chance not just to participate but to play at your best.