The Truth about Top Performers

Dear Colleague,

Paul McCartney,  Sheryl Sandberg,  Jeff Bezos, and many others in multiple industries are considered top performers.  Top performers produce.  They add value.  They have staying power and they are all talented.

But is talent alone enough?  Skills, capabilities, and a stellar brain; that should do it, shouldn’t it?  But we know better.  Everyone has worked with a “talented terrorist,” one who can crush another’s ideas with brilliance, has an overbearing attitude, or quickly dismisses others less talented.

Top performance starts with talent, but it takes more.  A lot more.  Which  brings us to the second component…attitude, and not just an ok attitude, but a deep-rooted optimistic view of people and life.  A belief that even if someone contributes a provocative idea or wants to lead differently, the respect remains.

A friend of mine who is a retired 1st grade teacher said she always remembers advice she was given as a new teacher.  “When you ask the class what is 2 plus 2 and someone waves his/her hand and proudly says 5, you smile, nod and make eye contact.  Then you say ‘well that’s exactly the right answer to 2 plus 3.  You are right about that.  But let’s go back to 2 plus 2.’  If you do that, your students will keep raising their hands.”

A great attitude allows others on the team to have the space to participate and grow.  Many smart, talented people love being right all the time, similar to not always right but never in doubt.  However, talented top performers are willing to give up the intense desire to be right and let others contribute and be right too.

Talent plus a great attitude are the rock solid foundation.  But it takes 3 more components to be a top performer and those are 1. An intense desire for achievement, 2. Eagerness for responsibility, and 3. Feeling genuine excitement for the next new thing. In subsequent eletters, I will write about each of these components in more depth, but read on for an initial overview.

To your continued success!

Susan sig


1. An intense desire for achievement  requires regular goal setting with deadlines attached.   Goals can be set hourly, daily, weekly, quarterly, yearly, and even by decades.  But there has to be a deadline attached to each one otherwise achievement is hard to measure.  A burning desire to make things happen means working through a lot of frustration,  many setbacks,  sometimes ridiculously unfair obstacles, and often through physical or mental pain.  When an achievement is important to top performers, they never give up.   They aim high and they assemble a team that can help get them there.

Diana Nyad, at 64 years old, was the first person to swim 110 miles from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage.  She swam nonstop for 53 hours and was vomiting much of that time because she had swallowed so much sea water.   She had first attempted this 110 mile stretch of ocean filled with sharks and jelly fish when she was 28 years old.  Diana failed in that attempt.  Because she was absolutely convinced she could swim the distance, she spent 36 more years striving to achieve what no one had been able to do.   Yet in this greatest of solo achievements, in her first interview September 2013 she said, “But I could never, ever, ever have done this without my team.”

2. Eagerness for responsibility and then more responsibility, even when that responsibility feels risky, is a core characteristic of a top performer.  Rarely does anyone feel 100% ready for the next job, or the next big project, speech, or promotion, but top performers are those who choose to reach beyond their comfort zone anyway.  Gender studies have shown that women are more reluctant to take a bigger job based on not feeling adequately prepared.  Men have the same anxiety as well, but typically men will lean in quicker.   Regardless of gender, top performers will take greater risks because they want a bigger stage and more rewards.  They also want to be invested in work that interests them and is purposeful.

Jeff Bezos was not content with delivering books through the mail.  As the founder and CEO of Amazon, he wanted the risk, rewards, and responsibility of creating what had never been done before – providing “the everything store.”  In less than a decade, Jeff and his team have provided a vast selection of everything imaginable, anticipating our every need as consumers.   It seems to have been worth the blood, sweat, and tears of performing at a level few have attained.  In a speech at Princeton University in 2010 he said, “When you are eighty years old, in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story….it will be the series of choices you have made.  In the end, we are our choices.”

3. The excitement of the next new thing is a driving force.  Like a child on his or her 5th birthday waiting to open a mound of presents, top performers never lose the excitement of the next new thing and all the ideas they just can’t wait to make happen.   Sometimes that flash of inspiration happens at a movie, at dinner with a friend, or watching your child freak out over getting a shot.

Dr. Amy Baxter was enjoying her pediatric practice working in the emergency room at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.  She was also the mother of a 4-year-old who developed a strong aversion to needles and shots.  Facing a future of dragging a screaming child into the doctor’s office for the next 12 years, Amy began to consider the options.  Her new thing?  “Buzzy,” which is her non-invasive invention that pulses and cools the location of where the shot will go and blocks all the needle pain on contact.  Even adults who have never received a flu shot before because of needle-terror, purchase “Buzzy” and attest to absolutely no pain.  While there is nothing boring about being a full time ER doctor, Amy added excitement and value with her invention, thereby enriching lives by relieving pain.

Everyone has talent, everyone has a choice.  Top performers keep on going.    Author Stephen King retired 10 years ago but has written 12 books since then.  Jack Welch, former CEO from GE, keeps on going.  Singer and songwriter Barry Manilow wrote a terrific musical, “Harmony,” which took him 17 years to get produced on stage.  Paul McCartney released “NEW,” which some say is his best music ever.  He’s 71.  To quote Diana  Nyad after her swim, “Never give up and you’re never too old.”

Or too young.