Authors and Consultants | GP Strategies Corporation


How to Spot a Top Performer

Image courtesy of stockimages at

Image courtesy of stockimages at

The first step is to identify the top performers. All too often, leaders assume that top performers are the most senior, typically either those who have been in their roles the longest or, worse yet, performed so well that they were promoted into management roles. More on that group in a minute.

First of all, what about the idea that the most senior, usually also the longest tenured, are also the top performers? We would answer with a definite maybe. The problem with that assumption is just that: it’s an assumption. But it’s based on the wrong criteria. In many organizations, promotion to senior status within a role comes from tenure more often than competence. Organizations have a strong tendency to elevate people simply because they have persisted and stuck it out longer than others. But that may not correlate with sustained superior performance, which is the only criteria we should be using when identifying top performers.

So what are the hallmarks of sustained superior performance? Depending on the type of role, there are various indicators. In many roles, such as in call-center or sales organizations, data can be analyzed based on the organization’s business goals. If customer loyalty is a primary goal, then which representatives have the highest satisfaction scores or the best Net Promoter Scores? If the goal is customer expansion, who generates and closes the most new leads? If the goal is customer growth, who garners the largest share of the budget? Note that we didn’t simply ask who generates the most revenue. We’ve found that to be a rather poor indicator of top performance. Revenue is, of course, critical. But it’s usually a level or two removed from what performers can really deliver. Revenue is a result, a way to keep score, but it may not be the best indicator of front line performance.

What about those former performers who are now managers? Well, they aren’t in those roles any longer. That presents two reasons not to select them. First they were selected (we hope) because of their potential to excel in a different role from the one they were in. There are innumerable stories in every organization about promoting the best sales representative who then turned out to be a mediocre sales manager. Or just the opposite: sometimes a mediocre sales representative who possesses exceptional leadership and management skills turns out to be a great sales manager.

Second, but related to the first reason, these managers are no longer performing the job. Therefore, they can no longer demonstrate through observation those nuances that mark an unconsciously competent top performer.


Questions to ponder:

  • For your critical roles, who are the top performers? On what basis do you know?

Are Top Performers Willing to Share Their Secrets?

top secretWe hear it all the time: interviewing top performers won’t work because they want to keep secret the strategies that make them top performers.

On the surface, that makes sense. In our hypercompetitive business environment, why would people willingly share the hard-earned tricks that propelled them to the top of their professions? Now that they’ve arrived, wouldn’t they just keep those tricks secret and try to prevent anyone else from learning them? It’s sort of like asking anglers to share the locations of their favorite fishing holes. Not gonna happen!

But our experience is just the opposite. Top performers seem more than willing to share everything they know and do. There is rarely any attempt to hide or mislead in any aspect.

Why? We have some speculations.

First, we find that top performers rarely think of themselves in those terms. They are typically self-deprecating and humble.  They’re just doing their jobs the best way they understand how to and they’re more than willing to share on that basis. On a favorite project of ours, a top performer told us: “Doing this extra step helps me sort out my priorities a little better. It’s a little extra work for me, and I’m sure no one else has to do it this way, but it seems to work for me.” Of course, some version of that statement was said by eighteen of the top twenty-one performers in the organization—each taking essentially the same extra step and reaping the benefits of superior results.

Second, more often than not, top performers think everyone else already knows at least as much as they know. If they’ve figured something out, they very often assume that everyone else has figured out the same thing. After all, they reason, it just makes sense to do it this way. As a result, they aren’t really sharing a secret because they don’t actually have any secrets. Everyone starts with the same training to do the same work, so it makes sense for everyone to figure out the same shortcuts, tricks and so-called secrets.

Third, and perhaps most heartening, is that most top performers seem to share a trait of not just being willing but actually wanting to help others. We’ve been thrilled to discover top performers who also became the go-to people in their roles when others need help or advice. They are good, they are comfortable being good, and they like to help others become better.

Fourth, and most telling, is top performers have a drive to get better. They are constantly looking to better understand their jobs and for ways to get better. In a recent project, the top performer, whose results were much better than the average and who was also one of the busiest people in the organization, was asked to review a draft TOPS profile. We hoped he would be able to spare a few precious minutes to identify any glaring errors or omissions. Instead, he gave us a four-page document with specific, thoughtful, and insightful comments. Instead of giving a cursory review, he had convened his entire team and spent a full day going through the profile, not just reviewing the document but also their own processes. They identified where they were strong and where they could improve and then worked out specific changes to how they operated as a team. In the review document, this top performer thanked us for providing him and his team with some great data that they anticipated would dramatically improve their results in the coming year. Not bad for a team that was already producing better-than-expected results.


Questions to ponder:

  • Is your organization fostering secretive or open behavior? What steps could leadership take to shift toward a more open, collaborative environment?

Role Clarity

clarity“In the Florida State University study, less than 20 percent of employees are certain they know what is expected of them at work each day, with the majority reporting varying levels of clarity concerning responsibilities, ranging from ‘some’ to ‘complete’ ambiguity.” (See more at Business News Daily.)

What an amazing statement! Put another way, over 80 percent of people don’t really know what their jobs are—what they are supposed to produce to be successful. How can that be? Have leaders simply not told them? Or could it be that the jobs have never been documented in an understandable way?

Or maybe the reason doesn’t really matter. The fact that the situation exists at all should be enough to spur us into action. And the action needed is to document, explain, and then reinforce exactly what is expected from each person in his or her job.

Document. What is the job? What are the outcomes that should be produced? How often should they be produced and to what standard? What tools, information, and relationships should be used to produce those outcomes?

Explain. Clarify, not just by handing someone a vague job description but by sitting down and discussing each outcome in sufficient detail that each performer understands it and is able to start working toward success.

Reinforce. Conduct frequent, regular coaching sessions designed to help each person produce each outcome to standard. Or course, this means each outcome should contain objective and measurable standards that both the performer and his or her manager can use to gauge success.

Document, explain, reinforce. Three simple steps you can take immediately to improve your teams’ results.


Questions to ponder:

  • Do your people really know their jobs? How can you be certain?


Knowledge versus Performance


In the automotive industry, painting cars is a critical and exacting process. So much so that the technicians don’t actually paint the cars, they coat them, a subtle but important difference. Of course there’s paint involved, and that paint is sprayed onto the cars—and that is the source of a key lesson about knowledge versus performance.

Within the training required of the paint-booth operator was a somewhat lengthy course on paint viscosity. It turns out that different colored paints have different viscosities leading to different spray characteristics—different enough that imperfections in the finished paint job could result if the operator wasn’t careful. Hence the course in viscosity. It was naturally thought that an operator who understood viscosity thoroughly would be better equipped to anticipate and eliminate any possible issues. In other words: superior knowledge would bring superior results.

To confirm this hypothesis, interviews were conducted with the operators who consistently produced the best results in the paint booth, such as fewer imperfections and higher quality finishes. If the hypothesis about superior knowledge was correct, those top operators would also be the most knowledgeable about paint viscosity and the potential implications in the paint booth. Imagine the surprise when just the opposite was discovered. Those top operators not only didn’t have superior knowledge about viscosity, they claimed knowing more would not help them in any way. But how could that be?

Instead one of the top operators pulled a simple cotton swab out of his pocket and said, “What I know a lot about is when and how to clean the nozzles to get the best possible results.” In other words: superior performance trumped superior knowledge!

Which would you prefer among your top performers: superior knowledge or superior performance?



Question to ponder:

  • Are you training your people to have superior knowledge or superior performance?


Detour on the Road to Knowledge-Based Learning

11While recently staying in central London, I asked the hotel concierge about calling a taxi for a 5:00 a.m. departure to the airport. The conversation was simple and short.

“Yes, sir, we can hail a taxi for you in the morning.”

“How much should I expect the taxi fare to be?”

“About 90 or 95 pounds. Or I can call you a car, and it will only cost you 55 pounds,” he added with just a hint of hesitation.

“If you can assure me that the car will be here at 5:00 a.m., I’ll take that option.”

“Yes, sir. He will be here. I’ll book it for you. What’s your room number?”

The following morning I was met by an enterprising young man who greeted me at the door with a warm hello and smile, took my bag to his car, and quickly launched us on our journey to Heathrow.

As we passed some streets that were new to me despite many previous trips to the airport, I glanced up at my driver, who had just touched the screen on the global positioning system (GPS) mounted in the corner of his windshield. A few moments later he changed course to follow the spoken and visual suggestion of the GPS system he was obviously following.

As the young driver continued to navigate the relatively quiet streets of early-morning London, my mind drifted back to my first trip to the city nearly ten years earlier. In the preparations for my visit I ran across a story about the grueling studies required of aspiring taxi drivers to qualify for one of the scarce taxi licenses available. The London taxi driver exam is legendary, in fact, according to a recent article by Jody Rosen:

“The examination to become a London cabby is possibly the most difficult test in the world — demanding years of study to memorize the labyrinthine city’s 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them.”

The comparison was stark. Years of dedicated study and testing had been replaced by a three-by-five-inch electronic gadget mounted on the windshield. This change meant my driver was focused not on memorizing the challenging street grid of London, but rather on timely arrival at the hotel, a pleasant greeting, and safe driving following the electronic voice of his “taxi tutor.”

To put it bluntly, the very knowledge that had been the linchpin of a profession a few short years earlier was made obsolete by ubiquitous access to guided information through an inexpensive navigation gadget. This fact raises several important and highly relevant questions for those of us in the learning business.

Just how important are programs designed to impart raw knowledge, product knowledge, or procedural knowledge?

What technological aids are available to help bridge the knowledge gap?

And if pure memorization of knowledge is no longer as relevant in job performance, what is important?

What are the differentiators, the elements that really matter to create high levels of performance in jobs, particularly in customer-facing jobs, today?

How do we uncover what drives performance and business results in today’s dynamic work environment?



Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Richard Hedrick at


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