Doing what it takes to be a top one-percenter

  • Published
  • By Col. John Newell
  • 12th Operations Group commander
As a group commander, I spend lots of time writing performance reports. We stratify our top performers - #1 of 100, for example - to clearly identify our very best Airmen.

We'd all like to measure up well within our peer group, and most of us try hard to improve every day. After years of observing Airmen and admiring their talents, I'll offer my observations on the characteristics these "top one-percenters" seem to share.

Before I list the ingredients that separate top one-percenters from the merely great, let me establish the baseline required to get in the game: Top one-percenters live by the Air Force's Core Values. I marvel at the brilliance, the completeness and the simplicity of our Air Force Core Values. If you truly live the Air Force Core Values, you are among the best the Air Force has to offer. Now, do these additional four things, and you'll be a top one-percenter:

Top one-percenters focus on results, not effort. We praise young Airmen for giving 100 percent, even when they don't succeed. Early in their careers, Airmen need positive reinforcement for hard work as successes are few and hurdles are many. But at some point, commanders expect results. Simply put, hard work is not the measure of success and certainly no substitute for results.

Surprisingly, some people never learn to make the distinction between effort and achievement. I'm perplexed when someone offers me an elaborate explanation for why something can't be done, as if somehow a good story is equivalent to having completed the task.

If you're routinely explaining to your boss why something can't be done, your boss is sizing you up as someone who can't get things done. If you want to be a top one-percenter, ask yourself every day: Do I have a reputation with my boss as someone who can get things done? If you're not confident of the answer, stop trying to look so busy, and start focusing on results - like top one-percenters do.

Top one-percenters deliver more than you expect. Top one-percenters take the boss' vague and fuzzy vision and turn it into a reality beyond what he could have imagined possible. Tell them to build a shack and they come back with a castle. As a commander, there is no higher praise that I can give someone than, "you've delivered far more than I thought could be done." If your boss ever tells you that, you're probably a top one-percenter.

Top one-percenters execute. Elaborate plans are wonderful, but results are delivered through execution. I've learned about execution by watching my squadron commanders. When their squadrons are doing something important, complicated or risky, you'll see them close by. They're not micromanaging or necessarily giving input, but they're overseeing execution, ready to roll up their sleeves and lend a hand if the unforeseen occurs.

As a group commander, it's comforting to see my squadron commanders involved in the important tasks. These top one-percenters leave nothing to chance, and the chance for foul ups is during execution. That's why they're there.

Top one-percenters lead. In his new book, "The One Thing You Need to Know," Marcus Buckingham defines a leader as someone who rallies people toward a better future. By this definition, anyone can be a leader, regardless of rank or position.

Consider the airman first class who sees a better way to do a task in his flight and shows everyone how. He's a leader! Top one-percenters see a better future - a vision - and then chart a path to that future. By definition, they are optimistic about the future and the prospects for getting there. If you are a pessimist or naysayer, you can't rally anyone to a better future, and you are, by my definition, the opposite of a leader. Rally people to a better future - lead - and you're on your way to the top 1 percent.

You probably can tell that I am excited about this topic, just thinking about the sheer excellence that my top one-percenters achieve. As commanders, there's no greater service we can provide our Air Force than to identify and propel our top one-percenters to greater responsibility. As Airmen, we should always strive to be the best.