An ambitious study by one of the world’s most influential management thinkers statistically links superior work performance to seven daily principles that almost anyone can adopt. They lower the risk of burnout too, as Morten T. Hansen, the study’s author and a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tells ThinkAdvisor in an interview.
In his new book, “Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better and Achieve More” (Simon and Schuster), Hansen, who is on the faculty of Apple University, Apple’s hush-hush in-house training program, presents the most actionable insights of his study of more than 5,000 managers and employees. The research shows that, for one, top performers work smarter by putting in less work-time.
Hansen, a former professor at Harvard Business School whose academic research has won several prestigious awards, argues that working smarter means maximizing the value of one’s work by focusing on only a few key aspects and applying intense, targeted effort to them. He thus overturns the basic assumption that working more and more hours per week increases performance.
In fact, putting in upwards of an average 50 hours a week impedes performance because it reduces the quality of work as a consequence of error-making, he contends.
About 14% of the managers and employees in Hansen’s study worked in financial services; stockbrokers were included among these. Between 15% and 20% of the financial industry respondents felt they were contributing to society, a belief that helps make them better performers, Hansen says.
Hansen, 54, is a popular keynote speaker for firms such as AT&T, American Express, Apple and Goldman Sachs. Thinkers50 ranks him one of the most influential management thinkers globally.
In the interview, the professor, who holds a Ph.D. from Stanford Business School, where he was a Fulbright scholar, discusses each of the seven work practices deployed by top performers in his study and how FAs can use them to optimize performance.
ThinkAdvisor recently chatted with Hansen, on the phone from Berkeley. Born in Oslo, Norway, The New York Times bestselling author of “Great by Choice” (with Jim Collins), who was earlier a manager at Boston Consulting Group, talked about how advisors can retool their efforts to work smarter and why combining passion and purpose leads to exceptional performance.
He also highlighted three caveats related to his findings that are critical to bear in mind — like, don’t take healthy debate in meetings personally.
Here are excerpts from our conversation:
THINKADVISOR: Apart from performing better at work, what’s the big benefit to following your seven work principles?
MORTEN HANSEN: Your chances of burning out go way down. Top performers we interviewed who embraced these practices were less stressed and had a more balanced life.
You write that working more than 50 hours a week can impede performance. Why?
This is a very important finding. The belief that, if you want to be a top performer, you need to put in the most hours is wrong because as you put in more and more hours, for every hour worked your productivity keeps going down. Beyond 65 hours, performance goes down because you’re making more errors and reducing the quality of your work. My golden rule is: Try to put in about 50 hours a week on average and concentrate on performing the work better.
Please discuss the seven principles. A main one is: Do Less, Then Obsess.
Top performers in our study follow this principle, which means having an extreme focus on a few key activities and an obsession to be extremely good in those things. You need to have that combination. You can’t be everything to everybody, so a financial advisor, for example, needs to choose a focus. That’s the first step. The second is to obsess to excel in that area of focus. In my study, the people who did this focused on what they want to bring to clients or the special expertise they have.
Another principle is: Redesign Your Work.
Were trapped inside webs of convention about how we work: We have a bureaucracy, work from morning to evening [and so on]. Lots of these conventions are not necessarily productive. Top performers question how they work.
How would a financial advisor do that?
If they’re given metrics to perform against, a top performer asks: Are these the right metrics? Does a certain number of cold calls per day, for instance, really drive performance the best? Maybe there’s a better way. Top performers question those kinds of conventions and can actually make changes that are far better for performance.
Would that work with redesigning a sales pitch?
Yes. A top performer will say, let’s change the pitch I’ve been giving numerous times to keep in mind the best value for the client, not what the client can do for me. Advisors need to step into their clients’ shoes. This is difficult for many people to do. But I would imagine that in financial advisory, the better advisors are able to do it.
Yes, being empathic is a key to understanding clients’ needs.
That will pay off because if you understand the clients from their point of view — not what you’re trying to push onto them — you can better serve them. If you redesign your sales pitch, try it out with a smaller, less important client. You don’t want to try something new on your potentially biggest customer.
Then there’s the principle of: Match Passion and Purpose.
Top performers have a sense of purpose and also feel passionate about what they do. The first is: I’m here because I help others; the second is: I’m energized by it. Those two things drive performance and motivation.
Why must we have both?
The dictum “follow your passion” is wrong because if you let passion dictate what you do in life, there’s a risk that other considerations won’t be taken into account. So you need a purpose as well.
How does that apply to advisors?
Financial services play an enormously important role for the customer. Advisors are contributing to people’s financial health and well-being. So it’s a profession that can have tremendous purpose. A great financial advisor is someone who really cares both for and about the client. That’s having a purpose: What you do is contributing to your clients and the firm you represent.
In your study, 15%-20% of financial services professionals felt their work was contributing to society.
And that makes them better performers. Here’s the reason: They feel what they do is more meaningful because it’s not only about themselves — it’s about what they contribute. They’re expending more effort per hour worked. They’re more dedicated to their job every hour. They’re paying more attention. They’re more in flow. All that, in turn, lifts their performance.
So, then, having a sense of purpose is really critical.
If your own financial rewards drive you in your career, you should probably rethink that career and reframe it as a career of helping others in a really valuable way. You also need to change the way you work because if you don’t care about the client’s financial health and the only thing you care about is selling a certain product whether the client needs it or not, you’re not thinking about the client.
How does that relate to better performance?
If you put the client first and your own financial rewards second, you’ll have a strong sense of purpose — and I predict that you’ll perform better. My guess is that clients will trust you more, you’ll get more of their business, and you’ll get more clients.
“Don’t just learn, loop,” you write. How would an advisor use a “Learning Loop”?
In a Learning Loop, you do something, get feedback on how you did and then modify our behavior. Many people are on autopilot: they’ve reached a certain level of competence and are at a stall point. But to be a top performer, we need to break out of that.
What’s an example?
Say you want to improve your sales pitch; start tweaking it on Monday and get some feedback. Maybe a peer, a coach or a mentor can listen in or sit in at one of your meetings. Get their feedback, and on Tuesday again tweak the pitch and modify your behavior.
Where else can a Learning Loop be of help?
You can improve the questions you ask the client because if you’re better at asking questions, you can figure out what they really need and tailor your offering to them. But you first have to practice by tweaking and getting feedback.
You write that women who mastered Learning Loops may have improved because they learn from failures more readily than men. That’s provocative.
Well, if you’re going to improve, you need to learn from failures. People who don’t will just repeat them. Women might be slightly better at learning from failures than men.
Next: Become a Forceful Champion.
In a big financial services firm, you perhaps need to convince colleagues that they should support you [about certain issues]. But they may be naysayers or might even try to oppose you. So in this scenario, you need to be politically savvy.
What’s the “smart grit” aspect of being a Forceful Champion?
Maybe people at your firm aren’t buying into your ideas and keep turning them down. Maybe you’re not getting the allies you need — the two or three people who could really be your supporters. So you need to influence them. That’s being savvy and smart.
When else could smart grit come into play?
Let’s say you have a financial product that isn’t [selling] well, but you keep trying and trying. At some point you need to stop and think, “Why am I not succeeding here?” So you need to be smart about it and redirect your efforts.
Then there’s Fight and Unite.
This is about how we run our meetings. Meetings should be for one thing only: to have a great discussion to reach better decisions. Often meetings are about status updates. This is wrong — we can do that by email. We need meetings with healthy discussion and debate. If you have a meeting with a lousy debate — about a new product, for instance — you may make lousy decisions about it.
Can the “Fight and Unite” principle apply to client meetings too?
The same thing. You could have a rigorous discussion with your client about appropriate strategies for them. This is not just about asking questions but about having a good dialogue, which becomes a discussion in which, of course, the financial advisor is the expert. But the client is the expert on their life. And a productive dialogue where the client feels they can actually question the assumptions made by the advisor about a certain product they recommend is healthy debate.
Now discuss Disciplined Collaboration, please.
If you’re in a large financial services firm with lots of offices across the country, you might need to coordinate work. Many times people commit two sins: One is that they under-collaborate, where each office is operating in a silo — their own island. But if they talk across offices, they probably would learn a lot from each other.
So the other sin is over-collaboration?
Right. I imagine that many financial advisors are frustrated because they go to too many management and product meetings, where they spend too much valuable time. The principle is: disciplined collaboration. Find a few things that matter the most and collaborate on them.
Any caveats about these seven principles?
I have three. Focusing on doing fewer things but doing them better means that you have more time left over. Rather than pouring that time-dividend back into your work, spend it on your private life — or else you’re not getting balance.
What’s the second caveat?
You need to keep your passion in check. You could be so passionate that your work consumes you. So you have to be able to control that.
And the third?
You need to develop a bit of a thick skin with regard to debating in meetings. It’s not about nasty fighting with colleagues, and it’s not about taking things personally. It’s about having good arguments, which you need. But you can’t let it get to you. If you get emotionally wrecked by the debates, you’ll burn out.
And do you practice the seven principles?
I’m trying. I have to improve myself, too.
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