Serving Up a Pressure Test

Serving Up a Pressure Test

In looking at why some executives thrive in tough situations, while others "choke," some researchers turn to tennis.

In pressure-filled situations there are those who "choke," and there are those who rise to the challenge at critical moments. The link between one's ability to perform when stakes are high, and one's overall career success, is compelling, according to new research from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

To study the impact on career success that is made by "critical ability" -- the ability to adjust one's performance optimally when it matters most -- Kellogg's Brian Rogers and his colleagues looked into the performance of professional tennis players. Tennis, they point out in Kellogg Insight, offers a good opportunity to compare individual performance under pressure, directly between players. The researchers examined point-level data of competitors at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, from 1994 to 2006. They found, perhaps not surprisingly, that players with greater critical ability were more likely to win important points over their opponents.

But there was more: The researchers also found a moderate correlation between critical ability and the skills involved with serving and returning. Moreover, critical ability also seemed to be linked positively with players' ratings with the Association of Tennis Professionals -- even after the scholars accounted for different experience levels among players.

For CFOs, this research offers food for thought in two areas: for their own careers, and for the management of their finance talent. From a career perspective, it's perhaps worth considering that high performance under pressure -- as opposed to a tendency to crack -- is more than just a matter of different individual working styles, as some view it. Critical ability, really, is how well one performs when it matters most.

The careers of finance chiefs often are filled with such moments, of course. The moments could involve a conference call after a dismal quarter, flagging performance in need of a turnaround, or even an appointment as interim chief executive, when the CEO departs. Given how important critical ability is to CFOs, it's also worth noting the observation by Rogers in Kellogg Insight that people tend to overestimate their own critical ability.

As to managing finance talent, it's also important that CFOs think analytically about the critical ability of individual contributors in the finance department, because it's an important determinant in a team member's value to the organization. "If everyone in the world performs equally well in every circumstance, it wouldn't matter whom you hire," Rogers tells Kellogg Insight. "But you want to select those who perform best in the most important circumstances, and people differ on this, based on their critical ability."

Just ask Roger Federer.

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