Over the years, I’ve observed performing and under-performing professionals in firms, trying to understand the complexity of performance in a professional setting. What is it that high performers have that separates them from others? Is it the lucky break they enjoy or do they create their lucky breaks? Is it uniqueness in their gene pool or is it a result of hard work? Are they exceptional only in their particular setting or does their success transfer to other settings?
Ultimately, what separates high performers from others is that, well, they perform. They get things done; they make things happen. They are called on and counted on when something important is needed.
There are various factors that contribute to high performance. Some are internal to the individual; others are external. Regardless, the cream always seems to rise to the top. Many high performers have environments that encourage and support them to succeed while others are able to rise above non-supportive environments to excel anyway. High performers don’t use external factors as “reasons” to excuse themselves to be mediocre or underachieving.
The Three Dimensions of Performance
From the research, performance factors seem to cluster into one of three categories. The first is capability—high performers are exceptional at what they do and how they do it. The second is capacity—they find a way to get it done in the midst of all there is to do. The third is motivation—they have passion for what they do that drives them to achieve. Let’s define each one to see how you can improve your performance.
Capability. Capability has to do with how well a person is able to perform. There are specific knowledge and skill requirements that you must meet in order to successfully fulfill the duties and responsibilities of your position.
All professionals are educated and trained to function in these areas in traditional ways like classrooms, seminars, industry conferences, etc. In that, you’re on common ground. What makes high performers exceptional is their ability to apply what they know to specific client situations to provide the maximum benefit.
But over time, technical competence is not enough to sustain your career development. There are other areas of capability that are equal to or more important than technical know-how. These competencies are related to your style and temperament, how you think, interact with others and respond to situations. These capabilities are the “soft skills,” which usually become dominant factors in your career in the long term. This doesn’t minimize technical knowledge; it simply indicates that technical skill is not enough to carry you through your career as high performer. Yes, it’s possible to be technically correct and still under-perform.
Capacity. Some people seem to find a way to accomplish what others find difficult to do. This is a unique feature of high performers. When I observe them working, it reminds me of the 10 percent inspiration/90 percent perspiration rule. Simply put, their work ethic is strong and they persevere. Their capacity to work through fatigue and distractions is admirable, but not beyond anything others could do. They just do it as a matter of course. I’m not talking about working 24/7; I’m speaking of their concentrated efforts to stay on task. Some call it working smarter, but in the end, it’s just focused attention to what’s really important.
You can increase your capacity by doing simple things, like closing your door and using the DND on your phone when you need focused concentration. You could clear your desk to avoid your eyes wandering to other important distractions to remain on task for a prescribed timeframe. Just make sure you don’t lose sight of other priorities that are running concurrently. Schedule when you will focus on them at another time (sounds like soft skills in personal management to me).
Motivation. I do not believe I have ever met anyone who is consistently performing at a high level who is not passionate about what he/she is doing. People are driven by what they are passionate about. Even if the task is menial, repetitive or seemingly insignificant, high performers have found something in it that sparks their internal motivation. They know what motivates them and they redefine their work to be an expression of their motivation. High performers find their sustainability in their passion.
Look at it another way. Without passion, professionals basically do a job. Regardless how good they are or could be, it’s just a job. They have little ability it sustain high performance because there is no driver other than “getting it done” and collecting a paycheck.
Often, these are the ones who would rather be doing something else and use their current employment as a way of funding what they really want to do and, by the way, find time to do in their spare time. That’s why people with jobs are loathe to offer much discretionary effort—the kind that is required to be consistent high performers.
Accurately assessing yourself in these three areas will let you know where you need to focus your energies to make the biggest impact. Under each dimension, take an honest assessment of where you are and where you need to be.
High performance is less about unique talent or knowledge and more about doing the right things consistently. Since that’s the case, you could be performing at a higher level. That’s not all bad. In fact, that’s all good.