Profiling for Excellence

Most organisations employ some people who are excellent at their jobs. If every one of their peers did as well, the whole organisation would be much more profitable and effective. Most people can see that a person is an excellent performer. It is much harder to discover how he or she does it. “Profiling” is a systematic method for discovering what excellent performers do that gives them the edge.

How does it work?

Profiling works best when applied to a group of staff. An organisation might want to look at six top salespeople from a pool of thirty salespeople, for example. A researcher collects information from the top performers about how they produce their excellent performance. The researcher analyses the data and feeds it back to the group. This step helps to check the accuracy of the analysis and builds commitment to follow up action.

It can be quite difficult to decide who are the excellent performers. What criteria do you use? Just asking this is valuable. The three case examples give three answers to this.

How do you do the profiling?

People can be very good at something, but not know how they do it. They need drawing out with careful questions and much listening. The best way is a one-to-one interview. The researcher must have good listening skills to create a non-judgemental atmosphere and encourage the person to reflect carefully. The process can be very helpful to both parties. It is very useful to know how you do things well.

The researcher is looking for evidence of what the interviewee does that leads to his or her success. He or she also wants to know how the interviewee thinks about work. A good way to get at both is to “Ladder”. This means to start open “You are obviously a most successful salesperson, what do you think are the most important things you have to do to be so?” Then go down the ladder, “You say that putting people at their ease is a very important part of your job, how do you do that?” He or she may say that to put people at their ease you “listen with interest” and that is enough. If “listening with interest” is an element of a profile, other interviewees will also identify it.

You can get at how the interviewee thinks by asking why, for example, setting someone at ease is so important. The answer might be, “If people are ease they will be less guarded and you will get more useful information”.

This process gives both parties a mental map of how the successful person does their work.

Handling the information.

The interviews produce a large amount of fascinating information. It is not in neat categories. I read each comment through a few times, then label each of them so I can say, “This comment is about….”.

I then use the commonly occurring labels to pull together the information across the interviews. This will give several paragraphs each describing in detail what the excellent performers did or thought was important. This is the profile. It is not a scientific process but it has given results that those interviewed have confirmed are accurate. You have to keep an open mind throughout. There are often surprises.

You can confirm its validity by discussing it with the participants as a group. This will also build their commitment to act. One of my groups simply said “It is accurate. We don’t need to discuss it, what we need to do is to plan what to do next?”!

What are the profiles useful for?

It obviously helps to decide what you want a profile for before you start collecting data. Profiles can clarify recruitment and development decisions. If you know what your top people do, you can target training and development very specifically to bring other people up to their standard. You can use profiling for research. One company, described in more detail in the case examples, used it to test that the way successful shops were managed led to their success. You will think of many other uses.

Case examples

Case one. A profile of top sales people in a computer company.


Area Managers identified the sales people that had the qualities and performance required by top sales people. They called this ‘It’. The purpose of the study was to discover how they did “It”. This knowledge could be the basis for development, management and recruitment decisions.


I interviewed the twelve people in an open and client centred way with, as far as possible, no preconceptions. The questions explored were “What is important to think about in your job? What you do that makes it succeed? How you do that?”. Then I read the data through several times, classified each separate idea and then grouped the classes to give some manageable headings. Finally, I summarised the data under each heading. The data is very rich.

The profile

A From my experience of interacting with them

All participants actively manage relationships. They show interest, give remarkably warm attention and are clear, open and confronting. They connect. Because of the warmth and connection, I wanted to talk and interact freely with them. I thought their customers would too.

B Key ideas from the interviews

1 The need to build person to person relationships with clients

Everybody stressed this. It came out in ideas like ‘partnership’. They established a warm, trusting, open relationship based on people being real with each other. Then they understood the reality of the customer’s situation and business and knew how to help. The key to understanding was attentive listening. They mentioned building close relationships more often than any other issue.

2 Questioning and researching

Most participants emphasised the need to gather data about people, organisation, and business needs by asking questions and listening hard to the answers. They could ask searching or confronting questions with personal warmth to get good answers without causing offence. Answers were checked against other data. They used this process rigorously to prepare for top-level meetings.

3 Understanding how customer organisation works

Participants said it was important to understand the organisation and how it works. For example, they wanted to know where the power lay, where was the excitement, which were the key businesses. Also, where do people want to do things and how do they make decisions. What style of selling or presentation is appropriate? When they understood, they tailored their approach to that understanding.

They did this research by making friends in the organisation, asking many questions, and listening hard.

4 Keeping your eye on the ball/being strategic

The participants had decided that they would make a real difference to their customer’s organisation and that this would result in a big sale. This clear vision led to people continually qualifying, working where power and decision were, creating strategic partnerships at the top and confronting stuck selling situations directly. If there was no obvious sign of forward momentum, they did something, even a ‘No’ was an opportunity to move forward. However, this was done with much caring for individuals, the organisation and the good name of their Company. People enjoyed working with directors and understanding their problems.

5 Finding ways to add value

People wanted to give back value to customers wherever it was possible. The value could be information about what was going on at bottom of organisation. It could be Company resource or a way of solving business problems. It could be help with human or organisational problems or helping the client put a case. The added value led to the person being seen as a valuable asset, not just a ‘Vendor’.

6 Being natural, avoiding role playing

All were authentic in their interaction with customers. They avoided role-playing or using ‘techniques’. When they are natural and real others can be natural and real.

7 Avoiding IT departments and computers

They made contact and strong connections to business decision makers who wanted to improve business performance. They sold improved performance not IT.

Case two-Branch Manager Profile in a TV Rental Company.


I interviewed eight of the managers of the most successful branches to discover how they managed those Branches. The common factors suggest that certain management practices and attitudes lead to business success.

The Profile

1) Team working

All the managers worked with their staff as a flexible, happy team. The teams were relaxed but not sloppy, people shared the work and everybody could do everyone’s job when required. There were no obvious demarcations or status barriers. The managers joined in freely. Where there were problems, the managers involved their staff fully and effectively.

2) Appreciating and encouraging staff

All found it important to praise and appreciate their staff when they did well and always to be encouraging and enthusiastic ‘we can do it! ‘

3) Being firm with deficiencies

Where there were deficiencies, they dealt with them directly, kindly and honestly. Staff understood when managers were upset and because of their approach would often come to them when a difficulty had occurred. Managers only used their authority when strictly necessary.

4) High expectations of self and others

Managers expected high performance from themselves and others; they set and talked about these standards directly. They practised what they preached and kept a close eye on everything.

5) Caring appropriately for customers

They encouraged a customer centred approach in the branch. It was important to know them, to respond to customers according to where they were. A businessperson might need a brisk business like approach but an old person might need more time and patience. Many customers did need time and it was important to give it and find out what they needed in a friendly and unthreatening way and avoid aggressive selling.

6) Learning actively

They were concerned to learn actively from the experience of the branch. If terminations or arrears needed improving, they would find out why and act to improve the situation. If something did not work, they would find out why and try something different.

7) Developing staff

They noticed that different staff needed different things and tried to find ways of responding. They devised rewards for excellent performance, set incentives and targets, delegated work, trained staff and were pleased to put them forward for their next career step.

8) Promoting the Branch

They were active in promoting the Branch and it’s sales by careful telephone contact to existing customers, leafleting, special events etc. Always it was important to follow up leads quickly.

9) Focusing on service

The branches offered efficient, friendly and caring service. The managers had understanding of the needs of the customers. They saw them as human beings and their shops offered the sort of service that those who worked in them would hope for.

Case three. A profile of members of a Human Resources Department.


In October 1990, I presented the basic idea of profiling excellent performers to a Human Resources Committee. My experience had been limited to profiling the holders of relatively narrowly defined jobs such as Salespeople in a computer Company and Branch Managers in a TV rental Company.

The Human Resources Manager thought the idea might have potential for developing policy training and development strategy, and practice. They decided to set up a small experiment. They used the senior management group in HR as a trial for the process.

This trial was not ideal. There was no external reference that says the members of the group are excellent performers. This was present in the other examples. Also, the personnel jobs were very broad, somewhat fragmented and might be so different that no common approaches would be logical. Given this, I decided to try to understand the jobs in some detail and how people did them. It might then be possible to give useful individual feedback if we found no common factors.

In the event, these anxieties were ill founded and common factors did exist. Some impressionistic information and the Profile follow.


The jobs are complex with many elements, they are subject to individual interpretation and the objectives are broad and sometimes unclear. The job descriptions appear to overlap sometimes so team working, mutual trust and good communication are very necessary.

The culture of the organisation is strongly normative. You accept the culture and work “with the grain”. You put a premium on understanding people’s needs and responding to them. You are open to ideas and learn from experience (by reviewing and reflecting). You help the organisation learn where e.g. an incident requires a new policy.

You see your clients as the Board and Senior Managers. You work by listening, advising, collecting and distilling knowledge and experience and feeding it back acceptably. You place great value on involving others to gain their experience and commitment. However, you would be careful not to lose control of decision-making.

You create consensus for action by carefully managing a cycle of activity that leads, in the end to full-blooded commitment and thoughtful action. You treat people with courtesy and respect. You avoid judging other people so they trust you. You value honesty, integrity and professionalism.

Your Profile

The items below are the things you felt were important to be successful in your jobs. They are in order of frequency of mention, starting with the most frequent. At least three of you cited each of them.

1) Involving others, considering their ideas and incorporating it

You value involving other people as the issues you have to help resolve never have one right answer. Thus involving others widens the range of possible solutions, increases the chances of finding a good one and leads to increased commitment to the solution.

Involvement also increases your understanding of the nature and ramifications of a problem. Your willingness to listen helps this process.

2) Sharing thinking with colleagues

You like to share your thinking about a project or issue with your immediate colleagues or sometimes with a wider group acting as a sounding board. In this way you develop your thinking generate new ideas and gain wider commitment to a course of action. You work in those groups by giving everyone chance to contribute their thinking, listening and asking questions.

3) Understanding how the Board/Company works and working to its ways

You understand how the Board and Company operate and what the individual needs of Board members are. You tune your management of a project, policy development or process to the way “things are done”. In that way you work with the grain and do not create unnecessary resistance. You listen to the directors to discover their concerns.

4) Being sensitive to individual needs

You are very sensitive to individual needs where doing so does not damage the long-term interests of the Company. Examples included writing a dissenting opinion in a report so an individual did not feel squashed by the majority and treating a deviant individual firmly but with compassion.

5) Observing and seeking out what staff are saying and needing

When you travel around the group, you use the time to listen unobtrusively to staff and managers to find out what they are thinking and feeling. When a particular need is identified, you seek staff’s views about it directly. You also use every opportunity you can to find out about the present and future concerns of your clients.

6) Learning from experience

You actively learn from your experience and help the organisation learn to. Sometimes you learn through individual reflection, sometimes by discussing an incident, problem or policy with colleagues not to blame but to understand. Where an unexpected incident says that there is a policy gap, you will fill this.

7) Listening to people without making premature judgements

Gathering data about specific individuals, attitudes to issues, opinions about projects or potential projects is a crucial part of your jobs. Making alliances with people is important. You listen to people to meet both these needs. You also value being listened to as this develops your own thinking.

8)Building excellent professional relationships with key people.

Power and control in the Company is at Board level and with Senior managers. You recognise that to have influence you need good relationships with these people. You build these relationships by listening supportively and being practically helpful, feeding back your understanding of what is going on in the business and emergent issues and consulting them actively.

9) Taking initiatives

When you have identified a clear need, and have decided it is important, you tackle it with determination but always taking care to build consensus around the need for change and the solution. You try to consider individual needs without losing sight of the whole.


These observations are my best judgement of the factors you value in getting your jobs done. The best way to reduce any distortion is to discuss this information fully and for you to give each other and me feedback about how you do your jobs. This will provide a reality check.

The most valuable data for the profiling process came from an analysis of past successes.

The three cases

The cases are very different. The first is the most “scientific”. They all produced valuable insights for the organisations and those involved. The process is robust and gives people positive information that is both useful and motivating. Profiling can help an organisation focus on the strengths of its people. This is a welcome counter to the stress and hopelessness that can be too present nowadays.

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick