Incentivise excellence not competence

Posted: Monday December 20 2021

By: Guest Blogger

As a general rule, people are the most important asset in any organisation. But they can also be the most expensive.

Incentivise excellence not competence

By Catherine Baker

What causes the greatest expense? Losing them and so having to re-recruit.  Not leveraging their strengths and utilising their capabilities in the right way. And the key to both of these – not developing them appropriately.

So what does your organisation aim for in its people development strategy? Competence? Improvement? Tick-boxing? Or does it aim for excellence?

At Sport and Beyond we put a lot of focus on lessons from sport that business can benefit from. Marginal gains. Continuous improvement.  Transparency over performance. TCUP (thinking correctly under pressure). And so on.  We also look to seek insight from further afield – we recently examined the training that snipers receive in order to think and operate under pressure.  Keeping the military theme, in this article we are going to focus on lessons from the Navy Seals.  A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review details how the Navy Seals train for excellence.  It picks out four factors: produce excellence, not ‘above average’; incentivise excellence not competence; incorporate new ideas from the ground; and lead by example. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Produce Excellence, not ‘above average’

Brandon Webb served in the Navy from 1993 to 2006 and radically redesigned the SEAL training course curriculum. He explained as follows: Being very good wasn’t good enough. Training programs shouldn’t be designed to deliver competence; they must be dedicated to producing excellence. Serious organizations don’t aspire to be comfortably above average. “I honestly don’t even want to focus on good or competent,” Webb wrote, “it’s not in my nature and I don’t want to be part of any team or organization that is willing to set this standard”.

What does this mean in practice? Well for us it’s threefold:

  • Understand your people first – what makes them tick, what motivates them, what are their working strengths, what are their main areas of contribution and value?
  • Then tailor their training and development accordingly, with an emphasis on building on strengths, as well as working on behavioural agility, in order that they can get the best out of themselves and those they work with.
  • Alongside this, help them to develop the right mindset and attitude, so that they can take ownership and control of their development and progression, and push both themselves and the organisation forward.

According to the ex-BBC HR Director, Lucy Adams, billions of dollars are spent on training and development in the US every year, only to have 80% of it forgotten in just 30 days. The days of generic training are over for those who truly want to excel in their people development and gain that extra edge over their competitors.

Incentivise excellence, not competence

How might you do this in your organisation? One of the changes made to the Navy Seals programme which had the biggest impact was creating alignment through incentives by the way they set up their mentor/student programme.  The mentors were evaluated on their students’ performance, which meant that they had accountability and the right incentive to work hard to ensure their students passed.

Training didn’t just focus on skills enhancement, but was also managed to build better bonds and relationships.

So think about the training in your organisation.  What incentive is there to ensure it is excellent? Who is accountable for this? And does it also focus on the key ‘softer’ skills such as behavioural agility, collaboration, building relationships etc.

Incorporate new ideas from the ground

Successful training must be dynamic, innovative and open.  As Webb stated, “As an instructor I learned that you are never done learning, and your students can be a wealth of information, especially when guys……would come back from Iraq and make recommendations on how to better train students to the urban sniper environment. We incorporated this type of mission brief back and actively sought out this knowledge from the SEAL snipers who were returning from places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and other not so friendly places. Then we would take this knowledge and incorporate it into our yearly curriculum review; if important enough, we’d make the change within weeks. That’s how fast we could adapt our course curriculum and get approvals.”

This of course is a challenge for us, but also for the People Development departments we work with. Feedback is key, not just at point of contact, but a few weeks down the line, once people have had a chance to reflect upon their learning, and put it into practice.  By actively seeking out what improvements could be made to make the training more relevant to the team/department/organisation, you are ensuring that your training remains top of the class.

Lead by Example

As Webb says, “Leading by example means never asking your team to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself,” Webb writes. “This can’t be faked, do it right and your team will respect you and follow you. Don’t do this, especially in a SEAL team, and you are doomed as a leader.”

In practice, for organisations, this means that leaders should not expect their people to undertake training that they haven’t been prepared to go through themselves.  Do the training, develop yourselves, live and breathe the benefits.  And it enables the people at the top to really understand what it is they are buying into, what the budget is providing for, and to become evangelists for the process.


So is your organisation going to train for excellence? Do you have high aspirations for your people, and for your organisation?

# Incentivise excellence not competence

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