Armand Duplantis

Measuring up

July 3, 2024

At the Stockholm leg of the 2024 Diamond League, Armand Duplantis narrowly missed extending his own world record in front of a home crowd. Armand, or more informally ‘Mondo’, is a phenomenon within the world of pole vaulting. At 24, he has already been Olympic Champion, two-time World Champion and a three-time Diamond League winner. In 2014, the World Record for men’s pole vault sat at 6.16 metres, with 6.00 metres broken for the first time back in 1985. Enter Armand in 2020, who took this up to 6.17 metres and then centimetre by centimetre until his current record of 6.24 metres.[i]

What about everyone else? If we plot the 2023 performance of the top five hundred pole vault athletes in the world, Armand’s score of 1,576 is 63% better than the 500th position of 969. More remarkably, he is almost 10% better than the athlete in second place with 1,443 points.

 

Men’s World Pole Vault ranking 2023 (Duplantis on the far left)

 

Mondo must be a prodigy! Well, in many ways, yes, he is. But the curious thing is that this kind of pareto distribution (or power law) is extremely common in studies of performance. In sport, in business, in science, in education – everywhere – we have a small number of amazing people on the left, with a long tail leading off to the right.

In the case of YouTube for example, poor Billie Eilish sits at #50 with 5.32 times less subscribers than Mr Beast. And since there were approximately 113.9 million YouTube channels in 2023, the tail is extremely long beyond this top 500.

Top 500 YouTube Channels by Subscriber count (Mr Beast on the far left)

 

But let’s stick with pole-vaulting and imagine it’s appraisal time in our local organisation. We’ve got our 100 pole-vaulters, and we have been set a mission by our leadership team. These are the rules:

  • Performance must be divided into five groups: High, Above Average, Average, Below Average and Low.
  • People in High will receive a 10% pay award, dropping to 8%, 6%, 4% and 2% respectively. We’re not animals, nor socialists.
  • We must distribute the people so that appx. 20% land in each category. That’s what we’ve budgeted for.

If we put that into a chart, we get a smooth bell-shaped distribution:

 

 

Smooth.  Now for our vaulters, the top 20, including Mondo, will get their well-deserved 10%, and people in the bottom 20 get a generous 2% considering their awful performance.

But hang on.  The difference between Mondo’s performance and 20th place was 19.1%. Or, looking at that a different way, of the total points achieved by athletes 1 to 20, Mondo generated 5.8% where 20th secured 4.7%.  If performance and reward were equitable, all 20 would have generated 5%, but they didn’t. Positions 1-5 carried positions 6-20, with Mondo doing the heaviest of all lifting. Why should Mondo’s efforts be left unrewarded, while 20th place gets gifted with benefits they did not achieve?

Answering these kinds of questions is usually attempted in a post-appraisal process, known as calibration. It’s the chance for managers to put their collective heads together and make sure that no-one is being unduly rewarded or punished.

The pole-vault example uses accurate, statistical data, but our organisations rely on aggregate performance across various projects, engagements and hierarchies – probably over the space of a year or more. The challenge is apparent: we rely on what gets recorded and what people remember and thus end up trying to compare performance of people in different teams, with different opportunities, challenges and fortune.  For example:

– “You can’t give Bob a high score. Remember when he ended up hanging on the upright? So embarrassing!”

– “Yes, that’s true – but he did get that world record this year.”

– “That wasn’t really that hard. I think he set the goal too low. If he gets a high mark, then my sprinter should too.”

– “What, Bob? The one with the real B.O. problem?”

And so on. If I’m giving the impression that this isn’t fair, good. While we can be thankful that Mondo isn’t being appraised by such a subjective process, many people are. We congratulate the salesperson who smashes a sales target in an easy market but hold back on the one that worked their socks off to only just achieve theirs in an awful sector. We hold a grudge against the person who accidentally rebooted the production email system, so much so that their later successes are minimised (that’s a real one I had to defend). We celebrate the individual on the ‘fast-track’ over someone else who didn’t get so lucky and who, in turn, received fewer opportunities to shine.

So, what now?

I’d like to say I offer a definitive answer, but I don’t believe there is one. Whatever you do will be a compromise and someone will feel that the conclusion is unfair. I highlight three areas to think about.

1. Data. As above, performance outside of sharp statistical data is a subjective minefield. No matter how comprehensive we think our 360 feedback and regular check-ins are, they will miss crucial information and our recollection is cased in our own biases and perspectives.

2. Reward. For those people who haven’t read Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, he cites compelling research into motivation. The thrust being that there is more than money to why people get out of bed in the morning, but people who feel that their reward is unfair won’t get really motivated until that’s fixed. In the case of the pole-vaulters, we have someone who is clearly much better than the field, and in such a situation, curbing pay to fit an artificial curve of performance is going to sting. That might just be the day that their CV gets distributed, or they are a bit more interested in that transfer.

If, however, we grade and reward according to a power-law, then we must be comfortable that someone might be paid 10x, even 100x, their colleagues. To do that of course, we need to be certain that they are performing at that level, else we’ll face the repercussions from the rest of the team.

3. Everyone can be great. I don’t mean that in some wishy-washy “you-can-be-anything-you-want!” kind of way, but rather, is it so alien an idea that a team can be made up of all good people? Back to Mondo, sure, he stands out from the crowd with his stellar performance, but we could also assert that all top-20 – even all top-100 – of those athletes are incredible. Indeed, if I had a team made up of literally the best 100 people in the world, I’d be chuffed. In other circumstances, I’d also be very concerned if one of my pilots, surgeons or politicians (ha!) was woefully below par.


[i] ‘World Athletics, Senior Pole Vault Men’, 2014 and 2023, https://worldathletics.org/records/toplists/jumps/pole-vault/all/men/senior/2014 and https://worldathletics.org/records/toplists/jumps/pole-vault/all/men/senior/2023.