High Performers: The Definitive Guide to Managing Top Employees

Jan 12, 2023 | Performance Management, Talent Management & Recognition

Every leader dreams of having a team full of best and brightest high performers. And with the right development strategies, you can make it a reality!

Let’s first discuss what makes a high-performing employee. Then, we’ll address how to identify, develop, and manage them to success.

Table of Contents

1. What Are High Performers

2. The Importance of Retaining High Performers

3. Identifying High Performers and High Potentials

4. How Employees Become High Performers

5. Managing and Retaining High Performers

6. Mistakes to Avoid with High Performers

7. Recruiting High Performers

What Are High Performers

High performers set themselves apart from average performers in several key ways.

  • First, they have a much higher level of productivity. They don’t just get more done—they get more meaningful work done.
  • Second, average employees tend to lose energy throughout the day. Meanwhile, high performers actually build up energy through the workday. As a result, they remain highly engaged and driven.
  • Third, average employees look to high performers for leadership and inspiration. High performers tend to make excellent project leaders.

What makes them so successful?

High performers have a balanced mix of intelligence, drive, and emotional IQ, explains HBR. They have abundant knowledge and cognitive ability. They have the courage and motivation to pursue more difficult challenges. And they have the emotional capacity to relate to people well.

Proven Habits of High Performers

  • They take initiative. They don’t wait for others to tell them how to solve a problem. 
  • They zero in on goals. They set clear goals and refresh their minds about them regularly.
  • They ask “why.” They want to know the rationale for a meeting and how their work connects to the big picture. This fuels their sense of purpose.
  • They know their strengths—and use them. This makes them almost 6 times more engaged—not to mention more productive, says Gallup.
  • They don’t procrastinate. They tackle challenging or less desirable tasks rather than putting them off. Instead of dwelling on them, they move on to other things.
  • They over-communicate. They ensure everyone feels clear about the workflow and key details.
  • They seek—and use—feedback. They constantly hone their performance by learning how to improve.
  • They constantly refine their knowledge and technical skill. By seeking out learning opportunities, they upgrade their skill set.
  • They manage time effectively. By prioritizing well and setting boundaries, they complete key tasks on time. This means taking breaks to replenish energy. The top 10% of performers use breaks strategically throughout the day to promote focus, writes Caroline Castrillon in Forbes.
  • They deal with stress well. Remaining emotionally balanced lets them stay calm under pressure. And working smarter rather than harder gives them more time to recharge, as CNBC notes.

High Performers vs. High Potentials

High potentials are likely to become high performers with the right encouragement. They probably don’t engage in all the habits of high performers—yet. They don’t possess all of their qualities or achieve their results. However, they do perform above-average work. Plus, they likely have some of the traits and habits of high performers.

A strong manager can help them go from good to outstanding.

The Importance of Retaining High Performers

According to McKinsey, high performers are 400% more productive than average employees. In some roles, like software development and management, they’re actually 800% more productive, writes Castrillon.

Plus, they’re 55 times less prone to begin projects they won’t complete. Their self-confidence leads them to charge ahead until they complete challenging tasks and projects. They don’t let things just fall through the cracks.

Identifying High Performers and High Potentials

Two high performers meeting to discuss work
Credit: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

How can managers, directors, and executives identify high performers? Use this two-pronged strategy of examining metrics and personal attributes.

Evaluate Their KPIs

Look at the metrics that define success in their role. Here are a few examples:

  • Task completion rate
  • Goal achievement rate
  • Volume of sales
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Response rate from marketing campaign

Compare these KPIs across employees. Who rises to the top? These are your high performers. Chances are, they share particular attributes as well. 

Traits of High Performers

What are the qualities of high performers? 

  1. Ambition
  2. Confidence
  3. Flexibility
  4. Problem-solving ability
  5. Intelligence
  6. Positive attitude
  7. Resilience

These traits fit into the 3 main areas outlined by HBR (cognitive ability, drive, and emotional IQ). 

Ability to independently solve problems is an essential quality that relates to both cognition and drive. High performers see challenges as opportunities. And they notice them before others do, springing into action.

Further, high performers’ positive attitude makes them pleasant to collaborate with. They show respect and consideration for others, which creates trust.

How Employees Become High Performers

Work to develop the high-potentials on your team into high performers. Here’s how.

Help Them Tap Into Their Purpose

When employees know their purpose, they’ll feel more driven—and perform at a higher level. Ask these questions to help them discover their purpose, urges Gallup:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What makes you feel frustrated?
  • What do you want to become known for?
  • What do you value most in life?

Through these conversations, you’ll learn how to motivate employees as well. Use what you’ve discovered to help them engage in work they feel passionate about.

Encourage Strategic Use of Breaks

Promote use of good time-management strategies. Working in 50-minute time chunks can boost productivity, writes Jodie Cook in Forbes. After a 50-minute stretch, employees can take a 10-minute break. This strategy helps great employees perform at their best. By using a technique like this, they’ll actually increase their energy throughout the day.

Set Clear Performance Goals 

Goal-tracking software will help employees see movement toward key objectives. They’ll feel more motivated as a result. These tools will also help them focus on their biggest priorities and avoid distractions.

Use Time-Tracking Tools

Similarly, time-tracking software will help employees see what they accomplish, Cook notes. Hour by hour, they can see where they’re working efficiently or wasting time. This can help them eliminate time traps and spot patterns in productivity. As their manager, you can share observations and suggestions as well.

Upgrade Performance Reviews

Establish a system of frequent (e.g., quarterly) performance reviews. Couple them with weekly one-on-ones and daily check-ins. Use performance review software to streamline and structure the process. It will help you zero in on the most relevant points, especially when coupled with goal-tracking tools.

Adopt Instant Feedback Tools

Instant feedback tools let you send a quick message without disrupting your workflow (or the employee’s). Use it in addition to in-person, phone, or video check-ins.

With these strategies, you’ll help employees become high performers who help their teams reach higher.

Managing and Retaining High Performers

How can you effectively manage high performers? First, keep using all of the above strategies. Here are several additional strategies for engaging high performers and nurturing their growth.

Discover What Works for Them (and What Doesn’t)

Talk with high performers about what leads them to do their best work. Ask questions like these to get the conversation started.

  • What type of environment do you work best in?
  • When should I check in with you? 
  • When do you prefer total quiet?
  • What working hours do you prefer?
  • When do you do your best independent work? Collaborative work? Meetings?
  • What types of tasks do you prefer to do in the morning? Mid-day? Afternoon? Describe the structure of your ideal workday.
  • How do you learn best—reading, listening, observing, looking at visuals?

It’s helpful to ask all employees these questions. At the same time, high performers typically have a higher level of self-awareness about these things than most people. 

Offer Advanced Mentoring Opportunities

All employees need mentorship. But high performers may be ready for a next-level mentorship. Pair them with a higher-level mentor, if feasible. Or, connect them with an additional mentor who can impart new skills and knowledge.

Show a Pathway to Leadership

High performers typically have a strong mix of leadership qualities. So, illustrate how they can work toward a higher-level position. Then advocate for them, working to open doors.

Reward High Performers Appropriately

Give high performers plenty of praise. Let others hear some of this praise as well. This will highlight behaviors they should emulate.

Additionally, giving them advanced opportunities will be a reward in itself. Let them do more of the projects they love. Or, give them a challenging assignment that they’ll thrive on. You could also send them to a conference they’re eager to go to. 

Mistakes to Avoid with High Performers

Steer clear of these mistakes, which can stunt high performers’ growth!

  1. Being afraid to correct them

Sometimes organizations are so afraid to lose high performers that they don’t point out serious shortcomings. But that’s a big mistake.

Don’t treat your superstars as though they’re infallible. If they have a critical weakness, address it, urges Rebecca Knight in HBR. Say a high performer communicates poorly or insensitively. Step in and help them cultivate the needed skills or emotional intelligence.

For instance, prompt them to think from others’ point of view. Remind them to tune into others’ emotions. Share constructive observations about how others react to their approach. Most high performers thrive on constructive feedback and will appreciate it.

  1. Micromanaging them

Allow flexibility in how and when they complete tasks. For example, while you should suggest time-management strategies, don’t force them to use a particular technique. Trust them to use their best judgment. Give them plenty of autonomy while remaining available for check-ins.

  1. Overworking them

Don’t over-rely on high performers, which can cause frustration and burnout. Instead, assign them mainly to high-priority tasks. Coach average performers and high potentials so their own performance will increase.

Finally, let’s explore how to attract these high performers and invite them on board.

Recruiting High Performers

Black woman on call discussing high performers
Credit: Ono Kosuki/Pexels

Attracting high performers requires several special considerations. 

  • Focus on your organization’s purpose, as Gallup advises. Employees need to connect with your company on a deeper level than salary. Show what you stand for and the vision you want to achieve, placing it front and centre.
  • Ask about their ambitions. Centering their goals and dreams will make a big impression. You’ll also ensure that their dreams align with your company’s vision—which will matter to them as well.
  • Outline growth opportunities. Create an employee development program with opportunities that any motivated employee can pursue. High performers love to know that their growth lies in their own hands. Plus, they’ll appreciate the inherent equity that a well-designed structure provides.
  • Dazzle them with your process. Have a single point of contact who maintains regular communication. And keep the process short and sweet, so they won’t get snapped up before you make an offer. Know what you’re looking for so you can spot it the instant you see it.

With the right training and support, any skilled and motivated employee can become a high performer. This begins with a high level of encouragement that shows you view them as a high potential. Once they realize you believe in their abilities, there will be no stopping them!

See for yourself how software can help you cultivate and manage high performers. Sign up to demo our product.

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