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?


What about Performance Management?—Part 4

Performance managementIn our last post, we discussed how a role could be defined as a series of outcomes that would provide the basis for an effective performance feedback system. In this post, we’ll consider how to handle aspects of a position that don’t fall neatly into a role definition.

The example we looked at was the role of a project manager. We considered that a project manager might have these desired outcomes:

  • A project plan that is appropriate to manage the project
  • Project team members who are aligned on scope, plan, and responsibilities
  • A customer who is fully aligned and whose expectations are managed throughout the project
  • A customer who can be used as a reference

Performance feedback clearly could be given for each of those outcomes. But in many, if not most, cases, people don’t fill just a single role in their organization. In addition to being project managers, they may also be a team leaders or department heads. They will, of course, also be considered representatives of the organization to the community at large. So how can these or other aspects of a position be incorporated into an effective performance feedback system?

Let’s consider the first of those examples: leadership.

For leadership, outcomes might include an identified and prepared successor or perhaps an informed and aligned team. Those are just a few examples. In either of those cases, feedback could be provided that meets our key principles of being

  • Timely
  • Objective
  • Frequent
  • Helpful

Similarly, other aspects of a position could easily be expressed as a series of outcomes that would enable effective performance feedback.


Question to ponder:

  • Are you measuring objective outcomes or vague traits in your quest to provide solid performance feedback?


What about Performance Management?—Part 3

Performance ManagementIn our miniseries of posts about performance feedback systems, it’s time to consider an alternative. Let’s first consider the basis of most feedback systems and then look at a different approach.

Most appraisal systems have a series of ill-defined traits, or sometimes competencies, against which performance is measured. Some of those traits are maddeningly vague. A couple of our favorites are

  • Strategic Thinking. Of course we want to think strategically, but how does one measure that? Or better yet, how should feedback be given so it will cause improvement over time?
  • Integrity. How can any organization even consider measuring integrity on a one-to-five scale? “Sorry, you only measured a three out of five on integrity this period. You lied to customers and your fellow workers fourteen times over the last year. If you tell the truth more often, you can probably bring your score up to a four next year.” Are you kidding?

Now for the different approach. As an example, consider the role of project manager. If the job of project manager were expressed as a series of outcomes, those outcomes might include

  • A project plan that is appropriate to manage the project
  • Project team members who are aligned on scope, plan, and responsibilities
  • A customer who is fully aligned and whose expectations are managed throughout the project
  • A customer who can be used as a reference

Based on those outcomes, the process of looking at each project planned and managed by a given person and providing objective and helpful feedback would be fairly straightforward. In fact, providing immediate feedback after the completion of each project to give not just feedback but also constructive ideas for improvement would be very easy.

Take the first outcome as an example: a supervisor could easily sit down with a performer and review a completed (or better yet, a draft) project plan with an eye toward how well the plan would allow the project manager to manage the project. So feedback can be timely, objective, frequent, and helpful and thereby meet our four key principles.


Question to ponder:

  • Are your roles well defined enough to provide the basis for solid performance feedback?

What about Performance Management?—Part 2

Performance ManagementLast week, we posed the dilemma of how to reconcile two opposing trends in performance management:

  • Millennials increasingly want performance feedback more often and in a more meaningful way.
  • Organizations are scrapping formal performance appraisal systems altogether.

This is not a new problem. When we were in the US Navy, there was an unwritten rule: the top 50 percent of naval officers were given top grades—often in the top 1 percent. Put another way, if you received anything lower than a top grade, your chances for promotion were significantly diminished. Of course, everyone knew it was a game, and everyone quickly learned how to play.

But that’s the essence of the problem. Performance feedback should not be a game; it should provide meaningful feedback that helps an individual improve his or her performance. Instead, the game is simply who can write the most glowing prose without crossing some imaginary line into pure fantasy.

Performance feedback and the accompanying performance appraisals should follow several key principles. They should be

  • Timely
  • Objective
  • Frequent
  • Helpful

Let’s take each of these separately:

Timely. Feedback should be provided soon after the performance concerned. Waiting months to tell someone he or she had fallen short of the mark is not very helpful. Most of us have trouble remembering last week, let alone several months ago. So feedback should be given in a timely manner.

Objective. This is perhaps one of the most critical, and most often overlooked, points. To be really meaningful, performance feedback has to point to a previously agreed-upon, measurable standard that both the performer and the supervisor view the same way.

Frequent. The often-used once-a-year model is a complete mess. To be truly helpful, feedback should be provided as often as possible. Anyone familiar with steering anything—from cars to boats to airplanes—knows that a series of small course corrections is more effective than infrequent major course changes.

Helpful. This principle is a bit of a touchy one and depends largely on the culture of the organization. In some organizations, performance appraisals are used mostly in a punitive fashion to justify firing someone. In other organizations, the opposite is true, and appraisals are used to justify a promotion or raise. Either way, the feedback culture is one of manipulation. To function properly, a performance feedback system should be viewed by employees as helping them improve their performance.

If these principles are followed, then a performance feedback system should help people consistently perform their jobs to standard.


Question to ponder:

  • How well does your performance management system measure up against these four key principles?

What about Performance Management?—Part 1

Performance Management

Ah, Groundhog Day! That wonderful time of the year when people think about performance appraisals.

What, everyone doesn’t think about performance appraisals on Groundhog Day? Well, they should. It’s entirely appropriate; just think of all the parallels:

  • It comes over and over again.
  • Nothing comes of it. (Think of Bill Murray and the movie.)
  • It’s frustrating. (How many ways did Bill try to kill himself?)
  • The results are usually wrong. (At least, that’s the revealed wisdom: Punxsutawney Phil gets the weather forecast right only about one-third of the time. And many would argue that performance appraisals are only right about the same percentage.)

Many companies, mostly out of frustration we suspect, are doing away with performance appraisals altogether. Given how little value people place in them and how frustrating they are for supervisors to do, complete surrender may be an entirely appropriate solution.

But at the same time, anecdotal evidence shows that millennials want more frequent performance feedback.

So how can you reconcile these two opposing trends: mounting frustration leading to eliminating performance appraisals and performers desiring more frequent performance feedback?

That is the subject of the next blog post in this series. For now, we invite you to ponder these questions:

  • Are performance appraisals appreciated in your organization?
  • Is performance feedback given in a timely and meaningful way?
  • How objective and measurable are the performance measures that are being used?

Stories from the Field


Image courtesy of stockimages at

Sometimes what sets the top performers apart from the average are simply little insights that become obvious after you see them.

At a catalog retailer, a small handful of call center representatives excelled at the upsell: convincing callers to buy additional items beyond what they called to buy. Obviously, that’s good. Selling more items to an existing caller has the least sales cost and offers immediate revenue and profit to the business. But why were some representatives more successful at the upsell than others? Was it something they said? Was it how they pitched the additional items? No one seemed to be sure. All they were sure of was that the top performers were consistently better than everyone else.

So we watched and we listened. We hooked up an extra headset to the phone and sat by the top performers and observed what they heard, what they said, and what they did. The pattern quickly became apparent. And it was surprisingly simple to design the method into the information presented on the representatives’ computer screens and to train the rest of the team to use it.

Before we tell you what it was, stop reading and think for a minute. Put yourself into the seat of a call center representative and think about how you would try to upsell someone. For purposes of this exercise, assume you are taking catalog orders for clothes. How would you convince someone to buy additional items of clothing that they didn’t realize they wanted?

Here’s the technique used by those top performers. The representative would offer a sincere and simple observation about whatever someone ordered. Usually it was something simple like “I love that shirt; it’s one of my favorites.” A statement like that affirms the decision made by the buyer. If the expert who works at the company likes it, it must be a good choice. Then the representative would subtly offer something like “it really goes well with ____” and name another item that complements the shirt. Notice there is no selling pressure, just affirming and then associating the first choice with a complementary item. More often than not, the corresponding item gets added to the order.

Again, we’re talking about simple techniques, figured out by the top performers who drive superior business results.


Thought to ponder:

  • The sales technique described above is also used by successful wait staff in restaurants. Think about a recent restaurant meal and if and how that technique was used.

Secret Sauce

Image courtesy of stockimages at

Image courtesy of stockimages at

It seems that every job has a strong dose of secret sauce included in the recipe. The secret sauce is that one ingredient, usually used sparingly, that brings out the flavor and uniqueness of the dish. Chefs often guard the identity of their secret sauce zealously to safeguard their recipes.

It’s the same way with top performers. They usually have some secret sauce that they use sparingly: that little something different others don’t use or don’t do that sets their performance apart from that of other performers.

In some cases, the secret sauce for a top performer can be as simple as how he or she approaches a particular task. In other cases, it could be a tool or job aid top performers have developed on their own. For example, in working with the top outside sales reps from one company, we discovered that eighteen of the twenty had developed a spreadsheet designed to track particular data elements and to help them focus their time on the most probable candidates. Each of those eighteen people told us they thought they were the only one who used such a spreadsheet, and although it was kind of a crutch, it really seemed to help them. When eighteen of the top twenty people all use some form of the same tool and each feels it’s important enough to devote time and energy to developing and maintaining, you know it’s important.


Questions to ponder:

– What secret sauce are your top performers using? What secret sauce do you use in your role to help you perform with excellence?


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