How can we make sure we can muster all our individual resources, draw from our experience and hit a peak in key situations in our careers – and what if anything can knowledge workers like CCOs learn from professional athletes?

A study published on Kellogg School of Management’s website reveals what a group of researchers found when they analyzed point level data from 12 years of competition in the US Open professional tennis tournament.

A candidate preparing for a presidential debate, a CEO facing a snag in a negotiation, a quarterback knowing that his next throw could win or lose his team the Super Bowl – we all face similar, albeit usually less high-stake situations requiring peak performance.

“Most people recognize the roles of innate talent—whether in athleticism or quantitative skills—and practice in performance across settings and time. But also of importance is a person’s ability to overcome environmental and psychological factors to drive results in critical moments,” says the article.

Brian Rogers, an associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School of Management, and his colleagues found that high-stakes circumstances motivate some people to raise their performance levels while others “choke.”

“In most professionals’ lives, performance on a few exams or interviews can have a dramatic impact on career development,” Rogers says.

A basic hypothesis would be that individuals exert maximal effort in all circumstances, regardless of stakes. “But we believed it’s not that simple,” Rogers says.

The research hypothesis was that individuals who display a high level of “critical ability “ – i.e. can adjust their performance optimally to high-stakes situations – should outperform others overall.

And not surprisingly the successful US Open players were those with greater critical ability, who were more likely to win important points.

Does this insight matter to CCOs? And if so, why?

First, it perhaps helps explain why some of us have made significant career moves.

Second, it matters greatly when we select and develop people to be our potential successors.

As the article says, you want to select those who perform best in the most important circumstances, and people differ on this, based on their critical ability.

Key is to know yourself, your team members and your individual and collective critical ability.

The article says further research could look into where critical ability comes from. What are some people born with, and what can we build through experience?

But why should critical ability matter at the organizational level?

“Understanding the determinants of critical ability will allow better prediction of which individuals will perform their best in high-stakes situations, a valuable asset to firms and to society as a whole,” he adds.

Thirdly, these insights are helpful to CCOs because those we advise at the most senior level, including the CEO, will have different levels of critical ability.

Having a sense for who “chokes” and who peaks under great pressure will ensure we don’t put an executive into situations where she or he can’t be at their best.

No amount of media training, issues preparation, q&a materials and talking points can save the day if the executive seizes up under the lights.

A tennis anecdote may serve to sum this all up. Bjorn Borg, at the height of his career, was asked by a television interviewer what he thought about while he was playing. He looked surprised at the question, and said: “The point. The point.”

Few performers – in sports or in business – will ever achieve this level of relentless focus or come near his levels of endurance, skill and mental strength. But we can learn from the attitude.

And it is helpful for all those who advise leaders of large organizations that the components of what makes for supreme critical ability are being studied.

Bjorn Edlund

Retd EVP Communications, Royal Dutch Shell plc
Principal, Edlund Consulting Ltd.