American Idol

A week or so ago a good friend, who I have worked with for the last 20 years, called as he was boarding a plane for LA.  He was taking his daughter to see one of the kids she did a lot of theatre work with compete on American Idol.  Being totally out of touch with these type of things, I decided to watch the show for the first time.  First, there was a whole lot going on there with voting, judge comments, second chances and having to wait two days to see who gets to go on the next round.  I was a little confused.  What struck me though was the huge amount of pressure these kids were under.  I wonder whether talent of this type is meant to be tested under such great pressure.  My bet is that all the contestants would perform a lot better with just a little bit less pressure and the audience would get to experience a higher level of talent.

There are a number of studies that show the level of performance builds under pressure but only up to a certain level and then if the pressure continues to build the performance falls off dramatically.  Take a look at the graph in this report that shows you can push a little beyond the comfort zone and drive performance slightly higher, but real care is needed not to go too far or performance drops dramatically.

I can’t help to think about what is going on in our industry.  Every other person I talk with  seems to be concerned about layoffs and whether there is enough career upside to even deal with the constant risk.  When not worried about losing their jobs, marketing professionals are struggling to keep up with a huge workload of often meaningless tasks.  They are swamped with emails and meetings.  They constantly read about litigation settlements and worry about compliance with the tons of documentation they deal with every day.  This is not even considering yet the pressures of generic competition, slow launches, managed market challenges and trying to market to providers who won’t interact with industry.  I feel the pressure just writing about all of this craziness.

I really think there is a huge role for leadership in this regard.  I remember coaching little league many years back and going to see what was going on with my 10 year old pitcher on the mound.  I was shocked when I saw he was actually hyperventilating while trying to perform.  I clearly failed as a coach in this situation.  How many people are feeling like that 10 year old day after day on their jobs?

Leaders need to challenge themselves to make sure everyone is working at the right level on the pressure curve and nobody gets too far beyond their comfort zone.  Leaders need to put pressure valves into the system to allow some of the pressure to get blown off.  Humor and a relaxed atmosphere is one huge way to help people deal with pressure.  Getting rid of useless work and making compliance as simple as possible also helps.  Telling people where they stand and what they are doing right is so important, so they can dismiss the ugly ghosts of failure that paralyze so many.  If success really depends on having the most appropriate level of pressure and if leaders are measured on how their people perform then it just follows that a lot of time and energy should be placed on monitoring the pressure/performance situation on a person-by-person basis.

I guess it goes back to the American Idol thing.  I really wanted everyone to do well and quite frankly felt very uncomfortable seeing the singers mess up even a little due to the pressure.  I would much have preferred to see the show do everything possible to regulate the pressure so that we could see everyone’s fullest talent.  Isn’t that kind of what we need in our business right now?

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