Celebrating the ‘Quiet Achievers’ …. Quietly…

What is it about quiet achievers that people like?

In this fast paced world where to be heard one needs to be increasingly loud and visible, the quiet achiever can be increasingly pushed into the background. Inevitably those that achieve visibility have to be loud, confident, extroverted and sometimes even a little arrogant to get attention. We are bombarded by media channels fronted by celebrity extroverts competing for our attention, to the point that we can become cynical in our search for genuine people. Sandra Cain’s Ted Talk on the “Power of Introverts” certainly struck a chord with the audience, which is essentially a call for the quiet achievers. According to Cain, introverts can use their private time away from the limelight to reflect more deeply on game changing ideas and innovations. And when forced into the limelight, like Mahatma Ghandi, their humility becomes more engaging and therefore more influential.

 So how do we find the quiet achievers?

By definition, one might feel that because they are ‘quiet’ achievers they would be hard to find. Interestingly though inside organisations they are often not that hard to locate. Think about the last time you needed to locate some specialist expertise in your organisation. I suspect you started the process by asking someone you know to help direct you. It’s likely that you will find the quiet achiever you are looking for in three or less calls. This is the power of networks. Referral networks are not something you will see published in the corporate directory. But through the use of Social Network Analysis (SNA) these referral networks can be exposed. Typically the “quiet achievers” will be heavily nominated central players in the referral network. Additionally, we will often find that those referring to them are drawn from a broad and diverse range of peers.

We regularly use the following network leadership framework to characterise the roles individuals play within organisations based on their networking profiles:

 Quiet Achievers

Individuals identified in the top right quartile demonstrate the unique leadership trait of attracting a high number of nominations for value adding to their peers, with the nominators coming from a diverse range of business units and/or locations. Such individuals are in a particularly influential position in the organisation. Regularly individuals occupying these roles are senior executives, whose power comes from their position in the hierarchy (ambassadors). However, those individuals that can sustain such a network position without the privilege of hierarchical power are indeed our quiet achievers.

Quiet Achievers Lead ‘Quietly’

As SNA practitioners we get excited when we find a heavily nominated staff member who sits relatively low in the formal hierarchy and/or are short tenure members compared to their more long tenured colleagues. It’s not uncommon for us to find these special ‘quiet achievers’. They are what we have previously referred to as ‘leaders without authority’ in our blog post on “Leading from the Bottom”. We don’t know for sure that they are introverts, but what we invariably find out is they are not usually visible to the senior executive. One such find was recently reported in the AFR BOSS magazine article on “Secret Power Brokers”. The back story on “Elvis”, who is featured on the cover, is that out of some 700 staff, Elvis was a newcomer at the lowest level in the organisation, yet his network profile was right up there with the top 5 senior, long tenured executives. We knew there was something special about Elvis and when we queried the leadership team about him, no-one knew who he was. We went down a level in the hierarchy and still no-one knew of him until one of the fringe members of the team, the business improvement manager, walked in and yes, he knew of Elvis. While he was a simple storeman he had the power to reject goods received into the store if they didn’t meet certain standards. Rather than misusing this power, Elvis was seen as extremely helpful and accommodating in helping staff across the organisation to rapidly access their procurements. He quickly became the ‘go to’ person in the store from all levels of staff across the organisation.

Senior Executives intuitively “know” the value of Quiet Achievers

One of my early SNA studies was conducted across a global network of some 2000+ engineers at BHP BIlliton. Our sponsor, Paul, was a former head of Engineering but by now the President of BHP’s largest revenue earning operation. He made it clear very early that he wanted to find out who the quiet achievers were so that he could make a point of personally visiting them and thanking them for their contribution. We duly delivered a couple of names of engineers who made the top 10 most nominated list, yet were regular engineers located at remote mine sites. Having himself come up through the ranks, Paul was well aware of the value that the quite achievers contribute to keeping the business running effectively. As a senior executive he commented that in his experience it’s the ones who just get on with the job, without feeling the need to “tell the boss” about everything they had done that week, that invariably contributed the most.

Unanticipated Consequences from Quiet Achievers

Sometimes the “quiet achiever” is nominated for unexpected reasons. In one exercise we conducted for a large rail utility, the General Manager (GM) was surprised as to why one of his technical staff, Tim, was in such high demand from his peers. On investigation we found out that IT services had been recently outsourced, making access to computer systems support bureaucratic and cumbersome. Tim was good with computers and always happy to help out to the point that he had become the de-facto IT support officer, taking him away from his real work. The GM was able to use this evidence to gain preferential attention from the outsourced IT providers, freeing Tim to do his real job.

Quiet Achievers don’t “fit” the Traditional Leadership Archetype

In one of our recent studies for an energy utility we again found a heavily nominated technical specialist that was somewhat a surprise to senior management. Some months later I met with the Head of HR who revealed that based on our results they had invited this person to address the executive team on his area of speciality. She indicated that they were largely unimpressed. He didn’t appear to show the confidence and presence they would have expected from an emerging leader. This was somewhat troubling to me. Sandra Cain elegantly identifies how the western world has come to expect our leaders to always exhibit confidence, extroversion and statesman like behaviour. Quiet achievers in contrast are likely to be more introverted and more comfortable responding to people looking for help, more so than pushing themselves forward and promoting themselves to others. In fact it is the humility trait that endears people to them in the first place. It is therefore somewhat disturbing that their value to an organisation might be measured against a leadership archetype suited to leading in a traditional hierarchy. I’m confident that as organisations flatten into more networked forms of operations, it is the networked quiet achievers that will come to the fore. While we might want to celebrate them publicly and put them on pedestals as role models for the future, I suspect that quiet appreciation from their workplace peers will be reward enough.