The secrets of Super- Performers

Steven J. Stowell, Ph.D., Emily Hodgson-Soule, MPC, and Stephanie S. Mead, MBA


Organizations everywhere need people at all levels to contribute more value in new ways to strengthen the enterprise and maintain a competitive advantage. The volatility of the business environment in recent years has made the need for top-level performance from everyone ever more pressing. In most organizations, performance falls along a continuum, with non-performers at one end, super-performers at the other, and reliable, consistent performers in the middle.

Super-performance is a skill that comes naturally to some people, but anyone can be taught how to raise their performance to a higher level — and it has little to do with getting more done. The difference between a steady performer and a super-performer is mindset: The way that work is perceived, approached and executed.

Super-performance is highly subjective and the way that it looks in your organization depends on the role that you fill, but there are some personal characteristics and behaviors that support superior performance across the board and aren’t bound by job-specific rules, expectations or organizational culture.

Although there are many qualities that a super-performer might exhibit, we have chosen to highlight four that we believe are critical in today’s organizations — and give you some ideas for how to nurture learners’ innate strengths and develop their skills in these areas.

1. Purpose-driven Work

Super-performers understand how they fit and why they matter in terms of the broader goals of the organization. They have a keen sense of the value they bring to the workplace, know how they can uniquely contribute to the business and care deeply about the success of their team and organization. This drive for holistic success causes them to do their best work. They are proud of what they accomplish with and through others and find great satisfaction in the work that they do each day, regardless of how sophisticated their job might be.

Super-performers work with great drive and intensity, but what is more important is their commitment: They take personal responsibility for outcomes and the quality of their work, act with greater empowerment and care deeply about the business mission and the contribution they make to it. They view their work not as an extension of their identity but as a reflection on their character.

Being unsure about how you can add greater value to your organization is not uncommon. Help employees discover their own unique purpose within the organization by asking them to take the following steps:

  • Reflect on the unique set of skills and experiences that you bring to the organization. Create a comprehensive list. Even skills that don’t seem relevant may add hidden value to the organization’s mission and purpose.
  • Understand the longer-term goals of the organization by doing your homework, talking with leadership and really listening to what is being said and done.
  • Assess how your experience and abilities intersect with the strategic goals of the organization and the expectations of your role.

Anyone can be taught how to raise their performance to a higher level — and it has little to do with getting more done.

2. Talent and Skill Acquisition

Super-performers offer talents in many areas but never stop learning. They seek opportunities to leverage, strengthen and expand their capabilities so that they can contribute to the organization in deeper, more significant ways. They take pride in continuously improving their abilities and challenging themselves to learn more and be better in their current roles, but they also set themselves up for greater influence in the organization in the future.

This is not to say that all super-performers desire a management track; to the contrary, some super-performers are most effective as individual contributors — but they willingly share their knowledge and are often viewed and respected as experts and mentors. Super-performers hone and leverage their strengths but are also keenly aware of their weaknesses. This humility allows them to readily seek feedback, be coachable, learn from others and grow continuously as people and professionals.

Making an honest assessment of your strengths and limitations can be difficult even for people who are profoundly self-aware. To help employees gain a better understanding of what they bring to the table (and some things they may need to work on), ask them to complete the tasks below:

  • Ask someone you trust to create a list of your strengths and a list of your development needs. Meet with that person to discuss their perspective and be very open to their feedback and ideas.
  • Decide which of the listed items have a bearing on the way you want to work, your career aspirations or your ability to contribute more value to the organization.
  • Create development goals for both your strengths and your limitations that will allow you to get to where you want to be. Discuss your goals with your leader or a trusted mentor.

3. Focus, Discipline and Forward Momentum

Super-performers have a clear understanding of their priorities and focus their attention and efforts on the tasks and projects that will support their larger goals. They are less concerned about the volume of work they do and more focused on how it provides inherent value to the organization. Super-performers spend their time doing the right things rather than more things. They make tradeoffs by weighing the urgency, importance and value of a task against the finite time and physical and mental resources they have available. They use their understanding of the organization’s mission and their own intuition to decide what really needs to be done to move themselves, their teams and the organization forward — and then they get to work.

They have the fortitude to set ideas into motion and the drive to finish what they start, using their situational awareness and knowing instinctively when a given set of conditions may require greater levels of effort, timeliness, precision or care. Super-performers are creative but also extremely disciplined. They know when and where to follow strict rules and use prescribed processes to ensure that they meet their responsibilities with accuracy, efficiency and speed, but they also know when they can improvise in order to increase their output or meet a tight deadline. Many super-performers create their own processes or structure within their workflow, allowing them to move through their responsibilities with greater speed and ease.

With seemingly endless to-do lists, many people in today’s organizations struggle to keep their heads above water. To help employees prioritize their responsibilities and decide where they really need to be spending their time, use the process below for guidance:

  • Document your responsibilities and rank their importance in terms of their true value to the organization. Decide what can be deleted, delegated or deferred. Be honest. You can’t and don’t need to do everything.
  • Meet with your leader or a trusted mentor to discuss your streamlined list. Decide together how to prioritize your tasks and then create a step-by-step plan for making progress on those items.
  • Decide which disciplines, processes or procedures will help you to focus on your priorities in the most effective way. You may choose to use or modify existing processes or create entirely new ones depending on the situation.

4. Balance, Resilience and Self-care

Super-performers have an extraordinary work ethic but don’t put themselves at risk of burnout because they understand and respect their limits. Employees are often encouraged to work themselves to the breaking point, and while this may result in short-term gains for the business, the organization and its employees will both experience negative consequences from an overly demanding culture in the longer term.

Super-performers apply their energy in a focused and intentional way, give everything they have to the demands of the job when it’s necessary and then they step back to breathe and take care of themselves. They build up their physical and mental durability by cultivating an optimistic outlook and use that strength and positivity to face enormous tasks or difficult situations with good humor and a healthy response to intense pressure.

When super-performers encounter adversity, meet resistance or make mistakes, they take responsibility for their contribution to whatever has gone wrong, learn from the experience and create a new way forward. Challenges are viewed as puzzles to be solved, not impassable barriers. Nothing will prevent super-performers from reaching their goals, they may just need to get creative to achieve them — and sometimes that means taking some time for themselves. Allowing for personal time and space helps super-performers refill their well of energy and return to work with renewed vitality and drive. Encouraging self-care and building resilience is good for the individual and good for the business.

Physical and mental health are essential components of a productive workforce and a greater quality of life. Here are three ideas to help employees take better care of themselves on and off the job:

  • Create a list of things outside of work that bring you joy. Schedule some time in your calendar every week to engage in those activities and be committed to following through.
  • Strengthen your ability to focus on what is possible and what can be done rather than what can’t be done. Being in tune with the positive aspects of a situation will give you a more confidence and allow you to find opportunities for growth and change in difficult situations.
  • Use your time off and make an effort to completely unplug while you’re away. Equip your colleagues with the skills and authority to handle the workload while you’re out.

Super-performance is about the kind of person you want to be and the life you want to live. No matter where employees currently fall along the continuum, a shift in mindset can boost their contribution and value. Performance excellence has the power to change your life, both personally and professionally — and the benefits of that are immeasurable.

Super-performers understand how they fit and why they matter in terms of the broader goals of the organization.