Pareto unpacked

Wow! It has been a looong time. I can’t believe I haven’t written anything in two months….TWO MONTHS guys! Between PCSing and leave, I apologize. I did not make writing my priority, and I have to say, I do miss it.

Finally, after a month of in processing and waiting for my laptop charger to arrive in the mail (I left it on my flight to Germany—eek!), I feel settled and at home in cozy little Baumholder. And here, you too can enjoy the view from my favorite writing balcony! 

And now on to the good stuff…

In an online leadership forum, I listened to Officers from various walks of life list their top leadership advice in a limited time of ten minutes. Amongst the great speakers, one peaked my interest because it brought me back to a personally controversial time as a platoon leader.

I never understood the power of my emotional perception until I brought up an issue with a leader of mine.

“Sir, I think that maybe sometimes people have two different perceptions of a situation, and that the truth might lie somewhere in the middle.”

The boom of his voice only very slightly crushed my soul when he replied,

“Well, I’m here to tell you that my perception is the reality.”


We were discussing the necessity of keeping one of the platoon leaders in my battery. I finally decided that I wanted to speak to my supervisor personally to gauge the issue and whether I could fight for this lieutenant to remain in his role.

Quite clearly, I lost that battle.

The disturbing part, however, was the advice given to me from someone after my failed attempt.

“Don’t shield a ticking bomb. Don’t waste your time on people that can’t be saved.”

And I could never get that out of my head.

Then, a few weeks ago, the advice I heard during my leadership forum sounded oddly familiar.

“Do not expend 80% of your time on individuals in your organization who perform at the bottom 20%.”

In my mind, this roughly translated to, “Don’t shield a ticking bomb.” I quietly grew angrier and more disturbed as I observed this principle applied to leader development in the Army under the veiled threat of “perception is reality.”

Then, a more level-headed mind in the form of my good friend and mentor, Aristotle Alviso, calmed my skepticism as we revisited the curious Pareto Principle…

The Pareto Principle

In somewhat easy to understand terms, the Pareto Principle claims that for numerous events, 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of focused and effective actions.

Although largely a principle used in economics as a resource for evaluating time management, the forum speaker asserted that this idea could also apply to leader development.

Think about it. How many times have you heard the phrase, “90 percent of your time will be spent on 10 percent of your Soldiers,” in a negative sense?

Indeed, as Army leaders, a copious amount of time is spent on Soldiers with issues. Soldiers that don’t shower, Soldiers that don’t clean their rooms, Soldiers that require exorbitant leader development, Soldiers who want to simply survive until their ETS date…Should those Soldiers’ issues remain in your front view mirror while your superstars get left behind in the rear?

How much time do we dedicate to developing our top performers? How often do we focus on the strengths of our subordinates as opposed to their weaknesses?

“But Ive,” you say, “every time I do an outstanding job, I don’t get more developed, I just get tasked with more and more work. Now I don’t get home until 2100.”

Yes. I understand. Performance punishment is a common practice in the Army and probably in many organizations. If you experience this, my best response is: learn from those lessons and do not continually task and burn out your best Soldiers. My platoon sergeant and I would likely choose our top Soldiers for missions because they executed their duties efficiently and competently. Was this the right answer? Not always. We were all burnt out by the end of the year…

One of my NCOs, however, incredibly developed his Soldiers and applied the Pareto Principle without even realizing it. By the point he entered the platoon, his squad included a number of Soldiers with untapped potential. He recognized his experienced Soldiers who could perform to a certain standard and put them to work. He trained his Soldiers to become not only more proficient at their jobs, but also more prolific leaders so that they could replace him in his absence. By focusing on the top performers and developing their leadership, he expended less effort in compensating for underdeveloped or inexperienced Soldiers in his squad while simultaneously building a more trained and capable team.

In the face of this one allegory, you may ask, “What of the rest?” Did he simply ignore them? Did he let the “ticking bombs” stay ticking?

No, he did not. He could not, however, focus every minute of his time on every single Soldier. Your team leaders can keep an eye out for individuals who need more attention. You, as a more senior leader, need to learn to differentiate between the internally motivated top performers, the externally motivated performers who need more guidance and mentorship, and the non-performers who don’t care. By doing this, you use your time wisely and effectively without letting bias perception dominate the development of others.

So perhaps…my philosophy falls along the lines of 70/20/10, where 10% exceptionally perform (these are the PFCs that take initiative and execute competently), 20% go above the standard expectations (i.e. a SPC that maintains a positive attitude and works hard, but occasionally makes PVT mistakes), and 70% perform at or below the standard (see example below).

Sorry to break the news, but your platoon/company/battalion is not your start-up business. You cannot immediately fire all the NCOs that claim they do not know how to dispatch equipment and allow their privates to do the job for them the night prior to a certification. Yes. True story, PLs.

You also cannot recruit and hire people who are intrinsically motivated to serve. Some individuals joined the Army to pay for college or support their families. Others simply did not experience proper leadership and mentorship. These causes for joining the Army do not equal to indifference towards the service, it just means that your approach to training and development must change.

When I heard the advice of avoiding “jumping on a bomb,” I understood the implication. I understood that you cannot allow yourself or the organization to suffer because of someone who simply does not care or displays complete incompetence. After two months of reflecting upon my encounter with my senior leader and the “advice,” I received, I realized that some operate under the guise of “80/20” without taking in the possibility of “70/20/10.” When we allow a narrower point of view of our subordinates take over, we tend to give up on someone with greater potential than perceived because we focus on that individual’s weaknesses instead of building his or her strengths.

This type of perspective comes from the highly under developed philosophy of “perception is reality.” This point of view hinders leaders from recognizing the difference between exceptional performers and above the standard performers. From my experience, this is the lens some supervisors view their subordinates because they fail to recognize causes for lower performance or make snap judgements from first impressions.

For these reasons, I currently tend to branch away from strictly referencing to the 80/20 rule in the military, but I support the general idea of focusing dedicated time on developing the high performing Soldiers in the unit.

Plausibly, this lieutenant was given many chances to enhance his performance. A senior leader can only do so much before letting someone go. Perhaps, however, supervisors and more experienced leaders in the Battery (myself included) could have aided him along the way.

In the name of proactiveness, some methods of avoiding the perceived lower performers from falling through the cracks include:

  1. Shoulder tapping: praising individuals about their accomplishments and informing them of their potential for extreme success within the organization. Recognizing their talent whilst their direct supervisor/leader coaches them through deficiencies or weaknesses
  2. Creating an environment tailored to high performance: maintaining a standard and acting as the exemplar for your organization. Praise a job well done and encourage subordinates when the job is not performed satisfactorily without patronizing them.
  3. Avoiding performance punishment: Why do leaders task the same people to do the same jobs over and over again? Because it takes more effort and time to build proficiency at all levels. Instead of performance punishment, empower your top 10% performers and trust them to train and mentor their subordinates. Do not allow the fear of failure to dominate delegation of tasks unless it’s a life or death situation.
  4. Coaching for performance: Try to ask questions to raise your subordinates’ awareness of themselves, the situation and how to solve problems instead of directing them straight to a solution or answer.

The intention of this discourse is not to lay blame or make myself sound self-righteous. I have a lot to learn on my journey, and I only observed so much from my little Platoon Leader fox hole. My writing reflects my perception of a situation, an attempt to analyze it objectively, and learn from mistakes at all levels. In recognizing this, keep in mind that my personal experiences, as well as yours, only serve as a partial reality.


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