Every company out there talks about wanting to hire the best, and the smart ones work to develop a strong culture that both attracts great performers and nurtures employees to greater productivity and contributions. All companies make efforts to encourage diverse hiring and recognize the value of corporate culture where differences are leveraged for improved team performance. Unfortunately, many companies too frequently focus on job-related contributions and lose sight of many qualities that contribute to a team’s productivity and exceptional performance.
There are many authors writing on what makes a great performer a great performer. The list below isn’t based on any science or research; rather, I’ve prepared it based on what I’ve observed in teams I’ve led or been part of and in people that have proven to be great performers.
1. Top performers don’t worry about whose job it is do something.
Patrick Lencioni writes about three qualities of a team player, and I think two of them play a role in this — in being an employee that doesn’t concern him or herself with whose job a task is but is willing to get things done. The first one is humility. Top performers recognize needs and are more than glad to step up — whether it be cleaning up after an office party or manning the phones so an admin can take some time off. Lencioni also talks about a great team player being “hungry.” It’s that hunger that motivates great performers to chase after the win and, when combined with humility, makes them willing to do whatever it takes and go through whatever challenge on their way to hit their goals.
This is a challenging quality because, at worst, it can be seen as a negative quality that goes against the culture, or at best, not recognized. Depending on the health of your corporate culture, it can also be a double-edged sword. In an unhealthy team, your top performer may be criticized for “stepping on toes,” being to aggressive, could get push-back or lack of appreciation from the employee who was supposed to be taking care of the needed task, and can be mistakenly seen as “wanting to take over and control everything.”
The hunger and motivation these employees have make them willing to paddle hard when the culture current doesn’t mind taking it easy. These employees will hustle to meet a deadline, even if they work in a culture that doesn’t worry too much about deadlines. They can be the inoculation to complacency often too common in mature organizations.
It falls to a team’s leader to recognize the difference and defend and encourage this top-performing behavior. Juliet Funt talks about this. What most would call corporate “best practice” she calls out as the negative consequences of casualness! It takes a strong performer and strong leadership to go against an entire culture and fight the “behavior blind spots” of conformity, compulsivity, and control.
Too often those who complain or are intimidated by someone’s proactive “getting things done” approach are those that fear for their jobs. As Danielle Strickland says, “Fear is the currency of oppression.” Leaders that discourage proactive “get it done” actions by top performers also put their company’s diversity efforts at risk. It is differences that make teams stronger, and fear hinders both productivity and the welcoming environment needed to extract value out of diverse teams. Leaders that succumb to fear — whether for their own jobs or of complaining team members — oppress their teams under poor management and discouraging leadership.
Effective and smart leaders see the world differently and have the courage to act on it, encourage their teams to do so too and recognize this quality in their top performers.
2. Top performers ask the questions everyone else is thinking but not asking.
This is another performance quality that is likely closely tied to diversity. One of the key values of having diverse teams is that it ensures someone will see a situation or challenge differently. So, whether it be because some don’t like speaking out and others do or because some see the issue when others don’t, top performers have the emotional courage to ask what seem like obvious questions.
What most leaders won’t see are the the text messages or private interoffice message saying, “Thank you for asking that question. I was wondering the same thing.” While most great teams have high-performing employees that likewise see the issues, your top performers are going to be the ones willing to take it for the team and be the first one out of the gate to ask those tough questions or make the obvious observations that no one wants to make with the boss on the phone line. This doesn’t mean all top performers ask — you will certainly have top-performing team members that contribute in non-vocal ways. But being able to speak up is certainly an essential quality of a top performer with leadership potential.
Not everyone on the team has to be outspoken. In global teams in particular, there will be strong contributors from cultures where asking a challenging question in an open group is out of the question. But every strong leader should want an outspoken top performer watching out for blind spots.
Top performers aren’t afraid of being pegged as “critical” or “negative” for asking important question. While this can certainly be a challenge for some, a top performer will be careful in articulating the challenge or question in a “how do we solve this” sort of way.
Your top performers are likely thinking like leaders and, many times, will ask what seem like obvious questions designed to elicit a response in an open group setting for the sake of everyone else. These top performers are likely having one-off conversations with others on their teams, have already identified questions or concerns, and are willing to step up to bring them to light for the sake of the rest.
The ability to ask questions no one else is asking is closely tied to two leadership qualities: the ability to drive clarity in communication and the courage to speak up and lead. So often, leadership and communication are about challenging conventions, both personal and organizational. At a leadership conference in August of 2018, Dr Rochelle Scheuermann challenged leaders about different communication styles: “Be intentional! If you’re the leader, you’re the one that will go first to flex and adapt to others.”
Both leaders and top-performing employees will have preferred behavioral and communication styles that affect both how we talk and how we listen. It takes courage to be the first one to take the right kind of action. It takes courage to do something differently than the expected norm. And it takes courage to be the first one to initiate difficult relationship-building or restoring conversations. It seems one of first places this leadership courage starts showing up is in the ability and willingness to speak up and articulate important questions.
3. Top performers appreciate and recognize others in public.
Similar to the previous quality, your top performers are going to show leadership qualities whether they are in a leadership role or not by frequently calling out others’ contributions to their successes or the success of the team. Everyone appreciates a positive word from the team leader. But when a peer calls you out, it feels even better because we know its not part of their job description to do so.
Going back to Patrick Lencioni’s three qualities of a team player, he writes about great team players having great emotional intelligence — what he calls “people smarts.” Manipulative employees, or charmers, (think Ferris Bueller, Lencioni says) can make strong use of people smarts but are often lacking in humility and the hunger to get things done.
Top performers compliment and appreciate others’ contributions openly and in public, not as a way to manipulate, but out of humble appreciation and the understanding that it takes a team to achieve success. Often, the ability to appreciate and recognize others in group settings requires vulnerability. In unhealthy cultures, expressing appreciation for others’ contributions to a team’s efforts can be seen as revealing where one lacked skills and others filled in. So, sometimes, it takes courage. Top performers ignore this lie and speak up regardless, and this makes them great people to work with.
4. Top performers challenge the status quo.
When asking why something is done the way it’s done, top-performing employees are the ones that are never satisfied with “Because its how it’s always been done” or “Because so-and-so higher up said so.” For top performers, the status quo is not something to maintain but, rather, something to break down and reinvent. These are going to be employees that see what others don’t, have the courage to speak up, and are willing to step up to do things differently.
Motivated by hunger, one of Lencioni’s qualities of a team player, top performers are constantly looking for opportunities to either optimize or, better yet, radically disrupt. When combined with the capabilities and tools of today’s digital world, top performers are often obsessed with metrics and analytics as they pursue insights to help them identify opportunities and transform the way something has previously been done. Your top performers are often willing to AB test their own hypothesis and experiment in order to come to a better solution.
One of the primary roles of all effective leaders is to recognize and encourage their top performers, to learn how to identify and hire them, and to foster these qualities in other team members in need of development. If you encourage these in your teams, you’ll motivate your top performers. If you discourage any of these, you’ll likely see your top performers walking out the door. I’m sure the above list is far from exhaustive, but these are four things I try to put in practice for myself, encourage in others in my team, and look for when building up my own teams.
What are additional qualities of top performers you’ve observed?