Chapter 6 Filling the Vase – No Cape Required


Filling the Vase

The old adage “people are our greatest asset” is wrong; “the right people are your greatest asset” is more accurate.

—Jim Collins

The central myth of the hero is of the lone man—that it’s the work of a single person to achieve the goal. Yet, think of every major achievement with a single hero figure at the front, and you’ll find a team behind the scenes, playing their part.

  • The round-the-world yachtsmen and women
  • Space station astronauts
  • Sportspeople lifting their trophies—whether that’s at Wimbledon or at an F1 event

The narrative has been changing recently, and today’s heroes are better at acknowledging the contribution of the team. And, of course, in some cases, they do go out and deliver single-handedly.

We’re certainly not trying to dismiss or belittle the quality of what they achieve. It’s just that the lone hero myth creates a number of problems. It values only people at the top of the organization or those who are most prominent. The people who represent the “face” of your organization. The people who speak convincingly but their words dont always match their actions. These are the people likely to attract the biggest pay raises and bonuses. Yet, their success is dependent on the people who work for them and around them.

As we say, it’s changing—look at what happens when a tennis star announces a change in their coach. We’re getting better at recognizing the work that goes on behind the scenes. But every time a leader achieves a plaudit without acknowledging others, it devalues the team effort—the technical experts, the researchers, the number crunchers. The people who bring the tea or clean the offices. Each one of them, in their own way, contributes to the overall success.

It creates and perpetuates an image of what a “leader” looks like and how they should behave. And there’s another problem to this model. People believe, rightly or wrongly, that they should work in the style of their boss or of the most successful salesperson, whether or not those are the behaviors the organization needs to be successful.

And, because our leadership role models are more likely to be older, male, and from the prevailing monoculture, what worked in the past may not be the best leadership model to develop for the future. In today’s connected world, leadership is much more about relationships and sociability. It’s about the ability to say the right thing, even in tough situations, and to encourage collaboration, even among the most competitive people.

In this next step in the discovery phase, it helps to put a name to the value people bring, such that everyone gets to share in the glory. It’s about the whole organization developing a diversity mind set and really getting to know the team. Whatever else you do in your talent discovery phase, it’s time to break the out-of-date links between the hero myth, the recognition, and the reward system, and focus on what works. Most importantly, it’s time to celebrate consistency.

Zero-Sum Game: Winners and Losers

It was pay review time once again and my client was feeling under pressure to name the top performers. He was also recommended to lose one of his most-valued team members. “She’s the person who’s always there in the background,” he told me. “She has the back of every member of the team.”

We talked about the story of filling the vase—thinking about his “big rocks”: the people who made the most noise around the department; pulled off a couple of coups now and then; and had a strong, and mainly positive, presence in the team.

We talked about how those “big characters” had a negative effect, on occasions, by stifling debate or talking down different perspectives. Then he talked about the smaller pebbles. The people who, day in and day out, do the research, crunch the numbers, and sort out the supplier contracts to make the rest of the organization look good.

And finally, we discussed how the two administrative support staff members held it all together. “You don’t see them getting the glory, but you do see them being thanked, every day, by someone in the team who’s grateful for their efforts.” By getting rid of someone, just because they will save money in the short term or they don’t appear to be the same quality as your “star” performers, is a false economy.

This is what we mean by a “zero-sum” game. It’s a race to the bottom. It may have spectacular winners, but it will also create unnecessary losers. Sadly, it’s a mistake many organizations make: retaining the managers with aspirations to work on the most exciting projects and raise their profile as strategic leaders, while gutting the teams that deliver the systematic (often labeled as “routine”) tasks.

There’s a lot of hot air written on the topic of embracing and valuing diversity, and at its heart, there’s simply a deep appreciation for the value of difference. Because difference brings new thinking and new ways of looking at old things, it shines light on the commonplace in new ways. And it delivers the whole, not just the shiniest parts.

We’re not just talking about gender or cultural diversity here, which bring huge value to the workplace; we’re also talking about the way different people approach the same challenge. Exploring those different approaches can bring value, rather than relying on the standard “we’ve always done it this way” response.

Being reminded of peoples’ value and acknowledging their value are two important steps in the discovery phase. And there’s a third step: identifying consistency. There’s a vital role for line managers in this phase because while it’s possible for psychometric tools to profile against the desired people and pick out those with the highest potential, it’s also known for people to respond to those assessment tools by thinking about what the employer wants to hear.

Observed behavior is a much better predictor of how people will behave in future situations. Most importantly, we can see people behaving in a variety of situations and identify what consistent traits they show. This links to the notion of recruiting and developing for attitude, not just for current or future aptitude.

If we train and develop people well enough, they can learn new skills and behaviors. It’s a much longer process to develop peoples’ relationship skills and sociability. Picking people most likely to thrive and help people around them to thrive is an important task because it’s an investment in the whole culture, not just in the individual.

To pick up on the example of thanking the team, the willingness to acknowledge others is a strength; it builds rapport, relationships, and better communications. It demonstrates that much-desired trait of “vulnerability,” because we can’t do everything alone, and acknowledging others starts with acknowledging our own skill gaps. Doing it occasionally is great, but those people who regularly acknowledge and thank others are consistently building the team.

And consistent team building has a much higher value than the one-off “let’s go tenpin bowling and call it team building” approaches. That’s not to say you don’t have fun together as a team. This first step is important because it’s in our nature to forget the contributions people make, especially if they are low key. It’s also important to pinpoint exactly why they’re important contributors—or seem to be important.

Sometimes just going through this process, as a one-off exercise, helps to nail the value people bring. It can also help bring out the values that contribute to the overall team success.

  • The person who sorts out the customer account queries
  • The person who makes sure the numbers add up
  • The people who bring consistency
  • Or those who bring “off-the-wall” creativity

The right environment is vital too. Some peoples’ strengths come to the fore when they operate in a particular arena. Defining the situations where someone has a strength and uses it at the optimum will also help identify their value to the team. The Gallup1 definition of a strength is consistent high performance in a particular way. It’s not just the doing; they also note the sense of fulfilment that people experience when they play to their strengths in the workplace.

You’d rightly expect them to have evidence as a research company, and they claim that

  • People who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged on the job.
  • Teams that focus on their strengths are 12.5 percent more productive.
  • People succeed when they focus on what they do best.

In high-pressure situations, for example, some people are great at motivating the team through a particular challenge. That same person might fail to demonstrate the ability to deal with day-to-day operational issues, leading to a buildup of routine tasks. Or they might be unable to delegate, costing wasted time if they’re not available to complete a task.

Discover Strengths at the Individual Level

If Chapter 5 was about recognizing the untapped potential in the company generally, now we’re talking about really getting to know individuals for their talents, strengths, and potential. Seek out and discover the people in the team who show consistency, with concrete examples, and it’s easier to put a value to it—even those people whose consistency theme is variety!

And this is where the diversity adds such great value. Let the people who are good at the day-to-day operations shine in that area. If that’s their strength, let them deliver. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, money, and effort to try and make someone’s weakness into a strength. Yes, you might want to neutralize any de-railing behaviors, so that everyone in the team is operating to minimum standards. But beyond that, effort can easily be wasted.

When I was studying for my marketing exams, part of the syllabus was the financial and numerical module. It’s not that I can’t do the math, it’s just that I’m slow. Despite the extra tuition, progress was painful: whether it was statistics, discounted cash flow, reading a balance sheet, preparing a budget. The breakthrough came when I translated theory into practice. I found practical examples in my daily work to apply to every principle, and this meant that I was using the methods regularly.

Now, you’d never employ me as your FD, and it’s much quicker to use an expert to crunch the numbers, but give me time, and I’ll work back to first principles. What that means is that I share, or delegate, certain tasks to others. For example, for our Employee Engagement and other survey projects, I’ll write the words and let our statistics expert prepare the numerical evidence. It’s a strengths-based partnership.

What high-performance behavioral research tells us is that consistent behavior, especially when taken step by step toward the goal, is the key to success.

There’s also the need to identify those for whom consistency is not a strength, especially if it’s related to their main tasks. It’s important to make links between business objectives and the consistent behaviors needed to achieve them. For salespeople, the links between contact management, lead generation, and making the call are vital to success. So consistent development of actions in these areas is going to be a must.

The underlying premise is that if you pay attention to the small details and consistently take care of them, you’ll achieve the bigger goals. It makes sense. If you can apply a behavior consistently, you’re more likely to achieve those bigger goals—especially goals based on peoples’ strengths and behaviors with proven evidence of positive results. So, identifying and encouraging consistency is a way to both achieve greater success immediately and build a stronger, more resilient organization, populated with leaders at every level.

Three Ways to Identify and Encourage Consistency

Consistent behaviors with different types of people.

Flying back from Los Angeles one December, I traveled in a stretch limo with an international star of stage, screen, and soap operas, thanks to a mutual friend who’d introduced us. While I was in my comfortable “long haul” clothes, she was stunningly turned out from top to toe. I was looking for peace, quiet, and anonymity, while she was expecting to be recognized and photographed every step of the way.

Her attitude was simple: her audience is everywhere, and she owes it to them to live up to her billing. At each contact point, she was unfailingly polite, responding to autograph requests while queuing for the plane. What I noticed was that this behavior wasn’t part of her act; it was an integral part of the warm person she is.

In the workplace, this means a consistent behavior with bosses, peers, and direct reports. This is a hugely engaging trait. People feel more at ease when they see that we’re the same with them as with a senior person. The converse is also true: if we hear someone gossiping or dismissing someone else out of earshot, the chances are they’ll behave in the same way when talking about us.

This kind of relationship consistency builds trust in the team (or reinforces distrust); it can build respect for line management and support for leaders—who tend to get lonely otherwise. Then there’s the need for people to be consistent in their relationships with customers, suppliers, or joint venture partners. The financial implications to the customer base are obvious. And then there’s consistency between people’s workplace behaviors and how they are with family and friends. There are still those people who believe that family values and personal behaviors are irrelevant in the workplace. Yet that consistency, of applying high standards in the personal arena and transferring those behaviors into the domain of work, will reap rewards. These consistent relationship skills are vital in today’s connected world.

Consistent Behaviors in Different, Even Volatile, Situations

Steamboat Springs, Colorado, on a clear day, is the most amazing place to be. From the hills above the town, you can see for miles in every direction. Unfortunately, we drove into town during one of the most powerful nighttime blizzards of the season. The station wagon was well equipped for most journeys, with winter tires and snow chains. The problem was that visibility dropped after we descended from Rabbit Ears Pass and the wind picked up.

Ending up in a ditch on the side of the road was really a “when, not if” scenario, despite every effort of the driver. I’d had my turn to drive earlier in the evening and was glad to hand it over. What was interesting, in hindsight, was how everyone responded so positively to the challenge of getting us out of the ditch and back on the road. We all got into our snow gear and piled out of the car to put our backs into the problem. Fortunately, we were rescued by the passing snow plough team, who cleared our path back to the road and set us on our way.

It was a couple of days later that we heard about “killing cold,” where people lose their heads and make decisions that get them killed; that night, apparently, was one of them. One of the notable reasons for developing better leadership is to achieve consistency, even in volatile and changing situations. And when everyone buys into the notion of leadership where the whole team steps up and takes responsibility, the outcome is likely to be more positive.

This isn’t the time for everyone to try and be “the leader,” it’s when people come together and collaborate as colleagues, for the common good. People who bring a stabilizing effect in uncertain times are valuable team members. Identifying and developing people with these personality traits will help in times of change. And this isn’t the same as “bringing stability.”

We can’t make those promises anymore. Uncertainty is the new normal, and it’s about rolling with the punches. Stability, in this context, is about how we behave toward one another to feel better about the uncertainty and the willingness to do what’s necessary to tackle the challenges, as distinct from feeling ill-equipped and ill-prepared for change.

Volatility and uncertainty will affect most peoples’ behavior, particularly when they feel under pressure. So, finding people who retain their usual standards, rather than fall apart or throw a tantrum because the external environment isn’t to their liking, is essential.

People Who Are Patient in Competitive Environments

Especially when you want to encourage collaboration, such people are a great resource. Think of those points in the week when you need your normally competitive salespeople to come together and work on a shared goal. Or when things go horribly wrong: the team loses a contract or doesn’t win the business they expected.

People who can consistently show empathy—and mean it—really support resilience in the team. This means that people will mourn together and bounce back more quickly than they otherwise would. It takes confidence to do something frequently and consistently. And when we’re talking about positive and appropriate leadership and high-performance behaviors in times of volatility, having confident people in the workplace is a real bonus.

The behavior that needs more practice than most people imagine is the act of acknowledging someone. Acknowledgment isn’t just about thanking people, although more of that would be nice. It is about noticing the underlying quality or values someone displays, through that act, because by seeing that, people are more likely to feel that you know and value them.

There’s a belief in many managers that they strive to get the balance between acknowledgment and correction/development or performance issues about right. They believe that by balancing this in a 1:1 ratio (of acknowledgment to correction), they’re doing okay as a boss. Sadly, this is not the perception of their teams. Typically, a manager has to increase the acknowledge-to-correct ratio by a factor of around five times for a member of their team to see them as being fair in their ratio.

So, not only are managers not getting the acknowledgment conversation right in the first place, they are also under-delivering on acknowledgments generally. And since acknowledgment of achievement, success, and behavior are key ways to motivate people and teams, it’s an area in urgent need of improvement.

It’s about frequency and repetition in applying leadership skills in our thinking, influencing, involving, and achieving behaviors. It’s really not about theory—it is the practise of leadership, which requires practical leadership development. Part of the role of a leader is to see peoples’ strengths and support them to use them more and more consistently. And this can happen at two levels: there are operational behaviors needed daily in the workplace, and there are those more strategic behaviors that will help take the organization forward in the future. Seeing peoples’ strengths and identifying their potential is valuable for the individual, the team, and the organization.

Leadership development that supports consistency is key, and we’ll look at this more in the next section. But developing people doesn’t start in the leadership program; it starts with support from their line managers and colleagues. So that, rather than setting these people apart, they are supported to deliver daily in the workplace as well as grow into new and more challenging roles. We build consistent leadership behaviors one step at a time—starting with using that behavior with more people, applying them across different contexts, and then, using them more frequently. That’s where the development phase starts. And the discovery phase is a vital step toward successful leadership development. Before we can successfully pick the best people to develop, we need to get past the central hero myth: the myth of the lone leader. It’s about more than having a diversity mindset: it’s seeing the value in every member of the team, not just those labeled “high achiever.” Spotting team members’ relationships skills and their ability to be consistent with people around them as they apply those skills is an important role for a line manager. Yet, even that task requires overcoming one’s own leadership preferences and styles, acknowledging one’s own unconscious biases and assumptions, and having a greater understanding of what the team and the organization needs to be successful in the VUCA World.

Worksheet: Stimulus Questions

In this chapter, we looked at the whole team—not just the stars—particularly through the lens of consistency in how they behave and what they deliver.

You can use this exercise for yourself and your own team or share it with colleagues to help them review their team in a new way.

What does your “vase” look like?

  • Who are the big rocks?
  • Who are the stones or pebbles?
  • Who make up the gravel?
  • What fills in the gaps, like sand?

What does “Consistency” Look Like in Your Team?

  • Who’s good at behaving in a consistently positive way?
  • Who displays consistent behaviors in different, even volatile, situations and with different types of people?
  • Who displays positive, motivating behaviors, like acknowledgments, frequently and consistently?

Overall, what does this tell you about your own leadership development needs or the development needs in your team?


1.J. Asplund, S. Agrawal, T. Hodges, J. Harter, and S. J. Lopez. 2007. March 2014. The Clifton StrengthsFinder ®2.0 Technical Report: Development and Validation (Washington, DC: Gallup Inc.).