We 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?