What makes an excellent performer?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten together with a number of friends and former colleagues to chat, catch up, and talk shop. Because of the time of year (performance evaluation season!) and other developments (my team is expanding, so I’m in the hiring process), the conversation often turns to performance. Who are some of the top performers we know? What makes an excellent performer? How can managers and leaders transition people up the performance echelon?

Across these conversations, with each of us sharing our experiences over the years, I’ve noticed some patterns and common observations that begin to show what makes an excellent performer.

Excellent performers make excellence a habit.

Day in and day out, the top performers make excellence a habit: every task they perform, no matter how small or large, is, at a minimum, done well and, with amazing frequency, is done extraordinarily. This is a manager’s dream! You never have to worry when a top performer’s on the job. You just try to keep sending things their way.

Most people, though, exhibit wild fluctuations in performance, depending on factors like level of interest, concurrent task load, and distracting personal matters.

“You never have to worry when a top performer’s on the job. You just try to keep sending things their way.”

Excellent performers expect no recognition or special rewards.

First off, it becomes difficult to recognize any particular contribution from a top performer; they have so many that choosing one is arbitrary, so any special recognition is almost like a lifetime achievement award. Furthermore, without digging it out of them or asking around, you might not even find out about some of the great things they’ve achieved, because they’re not at all interested in self-promotion.

Next, when you do give special recognition of their contributions, they’re typically super humble and react with things like, “I’m just doing what anyone would,” and “that wasn’t necessary!”

Best of all is that they truly believe this. They really are just doing what comes naturally, and they really didn’t want/expect any reward beyond the self-satisfaction of a job well done.

In contrast, mediocre performers are so accustomed to a pattern of lower performance that when they do attain relatively higher achievements they expect immediate and disproportionately large rewards and public recognition.

Looking back over time, they’ll point to three or four achievements over the course of a year as demonstrations of superior ability or as justification for an advancement, blissfully unaware that those achievements wouldn’t even register as anything out of the ordinary for the high performers.

Excellent performers bring out excellence in others.

Excellent performers don’t just make excellence a habit, they make it quite infectious. People with the highest potential for excellence naturally gravitate towards the top performers: these high-potential folks want to learn what it takes to be excellent, they want to contribute to excellence, and they are inspired by the energy given off by the high achievers. This is usually an important part of the ongoing development of the excellent performer, too, as they get to practice informal leadership and build influence throughout the organization in advance of the formal leadership that often comes along.

Sometimes, low performers will try to latch on, too, but that usually doesn’t last – they get put off by the high expectations and they wither under the spotlight that gets shined on the high-profile projects that are frequently, and deservingly, led by the high performers.

“People with the highest potential for excellence naturally gravitate towards the top performers.”

Excellent performers overcome barriers.

When you work with a high performer, and you pay careful attention, you’ll see that they seldom list ‘problems’ or ‘challenges’ without an accompanying spot to fill in a solution. Usually, they’ve already put some ideas down to help the group get started. It’s just not in their nature to see obstacles as insurmountable. Sure, they recognize potential obstacles, because they usually have a very well-developed situational awareness, but they intrinsically think “How do I handle that?” without ever venturing into unproductive thoughts of why the obstacle will be a huge issue.

Frequently, you only find out in retrospect that they’ve overcome a number of unforeseen challenges, and how they’ve done so. It might be months later, in a conversation with another department, where someone will say “Oh yeah, she talked to me about that back in June,” and you can put two and two together.

Lower performers see obstacles as built-in excuses, or as insurmountable challenges, or as an example of how unfair the universe is.

Barriers happen, but they don’t stop the top performers; for top performers, these challenges are just additional opportunities to learn and grow along the way.

“For top performers, challenges are just additional opportunities to learn and grow along the way.”

Excellent performers achieve beyond their role.

Many folks will dutifully work in a localized domain, whether it’s their own personal tasks, or the functions of their team. And, whether out of lack of awareness or initiative, or maybe strict deference to structure or hierarchy, they will limit themselves to these smaller playing fields. And in doing so, they will truly limit themselves.

“Excellent performers are constantly looking beyond borders.”

Excellent performers, in contrast, are constantly looking beyond borders; in fact, I’m convinced that they don’t even see borders. Why would they see an artificial construct that gets in the way of getting things done? That’s not the high achiever way!

Instead, they look beyond their role, beyond their team, beyond their department, into adjacent or related functions, and in doing so they spot new, innovative, incredible ways to make an impact. Of course, they’re not ignorant, and they realize that some care must be taken when you go into unfamiliar territory…but they’ll take that care. They’ll book meetings with department heads, they’ll build influence, and more often than not they’ll win people over with their idea.

Excellent performers don’t make excuses; they make a difference.

Everyone can make a difference – to an account, to a project, etc. – but truly excellent performers change how organizations operate. They make a difference at such a large scale that things are never the same again.

They make a difference by taking care of all the small, tedious things, quickly and mistake free. This lets them focus their intellectual effort on asking important questions, on challenging norms, of looking beyond their borders.

They make a difference by taking on large projects, and getting them done better than planned, on time.

They make a difference by inspiring others, by being a rising tide that lifts those around them to new heights.

And they make a difference by showing what we can all achieve, if we have the intrinsic motivation and have developed the skills to do so.

“Excellent performers make a difference by showing what we can all achieve.”

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Posted in Careers, Leadership, Management
2 comments on “What makes an excellent performer?
  1. […] Bingo! Man, it drives me nuts when people just kinda ho-hum through only those things that you’ve specifically assigned (I touch on some related themes in What makes an excellent performer?) […]

  2. […] who never let complacency set in and can always stay at or near the front of the herd. These excellent performers are the polar opposites of complacent: they are never satisfied, they’re always trying to […]

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