The Tells of Success

A barely perceptible twitch of an eyelid, a neck muscle suddenly in need of a massage, a subtle scratch of the head; in the parlance of competitive poker, these are known as “tells”. Savvy players can spot confidence or fear, a straight filled or a house not quite full. Like a master poker player who looks for the tells of his competitor, the effective leader uses behavior, performance and data “tells” to tip him/her off to the relative chances of success. I recently learned how a major college football program differentiates itself from competitors in recruiting offensive lineman. On the surface it’s pretty obvious that linemen need to be large and extremely strong, every team looks for those characteristics. Evidently, the best linemen also need to have “loose ankles.” It seems that stiff ankles are a big obstacle to the deft footwork necessary for blocking effectively. Interpreting this “tell” of the recruit and recognizing how it translates to good blocking makes all the difference in the success of recruiting for this team; they consistently have some of the best offensive lines in college football. Many years ago a major airline had determined that expressiveness was a key characteristic for success as a flight attendant. They conducted group interviews with hundreds of people at a time, where they asked the interviewees to go up on stage in front of all the other candidates to be interviewed by a panel. Although the candidates thought this was their make or break opportunity to impress the interviewers, the actual evaluation was being done backstage. Unbeknownst to all attendees, the real evaluators were behind the presenters looking at the audience. When audience members showed body language that encouraged the candidates, responded enthusiastically to their presentations and could be seen to mirror the candidate’s expressions (all key “tells” of expressiveness) the airline recruiters could easily identify the candidates with the expressiveness required for the job.

Leaders can find all sorts of “tells” in the world around them, from weather indicators that impact customer behavior to a slight change in quality data that indicates an impending break down in equipment. Perhaps one of your most enthusiastic team members is suddenly sullen. You observe error rates suddenly go up or maybe you see error rates suddenly go down. There are many signals that can inform of impending success or failure. The key is knowing what to look for and then paying attention so you don’t miss it when it flashes by. Sometimes this requires a gut feeling that goes beyond what the data says and allows all the senses to evaluate the impact of the indicator. So, take a moment to evaluate your area of responsibility. As you survey your area, what do you look for? How good are you at interpreting what you see and translating that information into valuable action? Like the master poker player, sometimes the difference between a good leader and a great one is the ability to recognize the “tells” of success. If you find the right indicators and are good at spotting them, you can’t help but increase your chances of leading your team to success.

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