Become a High Performer in 5 Steps

high performer

Although we tend to lump employees of a company together, all employees are not the same.

Some are high performers, who work harder and smarter, delivering exceptional results, whether that’s breaking sales records or delivering over-the-top service to customers. High performers are über productive—one recent study said they could deliver 400% more productivity than an average performer.

So how to be a high performer? Are we born that way or can we become one? Last year the O.C. Tanner Institute (the research and publishing arm of the human resource consultancy O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City) analyzed 1.7 million people across all industries, positions and pay grades. They found high performance is less an outcome of shared genetic traits than the result of certain activities.

David Sturt, executive vice president of the O.C. Tanner Institute and the author of Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love, spends a lot of time studying people in the workplace, their productivity and creativity. He says high-performers aren’t constrained by their job descriptions and often reframe their role as someone who can make changes and improvements, allowing them to go beyond what’s expected. “If you want to be a high-performer, you’ve got to make a difference,” he says, and here’s how:

  1. Ask the right questions. So often, innovative ideas begin with a question like “Why does it take 25 minutes to do this thing, when it should take five? ” That spark, that question, challenges the way things are currently being done and nags at you. You start thinking: “How could I change this?” And then you do.
  1. See for yourself how things work. You don’t come up with different ways to approach your work if you keep looking at things the same way, so change your perspective. That might mean going out and seeing how your work is being consumed and used. It could be going out and watching a customer that’s interacting with your work and output. What you think is producing the value may or may not be producing the value. Seeing how something is actually working—or not—tends to produce all kinds of fresh thinking.
  1. Talk to your outer circle. In our research we saw that when someone is trying to solve a difficult problem their default is to go the 2-3 people to whom they are closest and trust, but those people also tend to be the most like you, essentially an extension of your own brain. We found the most innovative thinking come from conversations with people that are not in your inner circle, who don’t think like you. That person may be outside of your department, someone who doesn’t have the same background or experiences, someone that isn’t immersed in the same discipline.
  1. Improve the mix. People think innovation means coming up with some new thing but it’s really relatively small additions or subtractions that are the heart and soul of innovation. We can all innovate. Think: “What’s one small thing I can add to this product, service or work that can create more value? And what’s one thing I could remove to make it better?”
  1. Deliver the difference. See your work all the way through, until the difference is made. Too many people think their work is done before they understand if the difference is truly made. Don’t just walk away after your job is done, stay with it, watch it and measure it to see if you really had the impact you intended. So often when we measure results we find unexpected opportunities for fine-tuning.

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.