How to Spot a Top Performer

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.

Question to ponder: For your critical roles, who are the top performers? On what basis do you know?

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