What Separates the Best from the Rest?

May 20, 2011

I just finished reading Change Anything- The New Science of Personal Success. A portion of the book that really fascinated me was the section about distinguishing the best employees from the rest of the employees. I hope that you can utilize some of these tips and apply them in practical ways in your professional life. Here is what the authors had to say:

Over the past couple of decades we’ve studies the most influential and respected employees in more than fifty companies and dozens of industries. We entered organizations and asked thousands of employees (including the bosses) to give us names of three people whose opinions, work, and abilities they most admired. We wanted to find the go-to people—and we did.

When we looked closely at these highly valued individuals, we soon learned that they hadn’t been singled out because of a popularity contest. Rather, they had won a productivity contest. They weren’t politicians, they were well valued resources.

Next came the real work. We had to uncover what these high performers did that made them so valued—by peers and bosses alike. Here is what we found. Across organizations as different as sawmills, government agencies, tech start-ups, and charitable non-profits, top performers practice the same three vital behaviors.

1. Know Your Stuff. Okay, we admit, we know this sounds a bit vague, so let’s clarify what we mean by “stuff”. Top performers put regular effort into ensuring that they are good at the technical aspects of their jobs. If their job is to sort lumber, they fall asleep at night pondering sorting strategies. If they are in marketing, then they voraciously acquire the best marketing knowledge available. You get the picture. They work hard at honing their craft.

2. Focus on the Right Stuff. In addition to performing their craft well, top performers contribute to tasks that are essential to the organization’s success. This is important to grasp. Not all contributions are equal. Highly valued employees help manage what Stanford University’s Jeffrey Pfeffer calls the company’s “critical uncertainties.” If a company is having trouble manufacturing its product, top performers find a way to help resolve that problem. If the firm is fighting legal challenges, top performers apply their scientific expertise to that issue. If nobody has figured out how to market the product, top performers are hip deep in solving that problem.

And how do top performers get these mission-critical assignments? First, they are intensely interested in understanding where the organization is going (with emphasis on key challenges). They study their own company. Next (and this is their true genius) they equip themselves to make their best and highest contribution to the core elements of where their company is going. Top performers work on their skill set and their access to critical tasks.

3. Build a Reputation for Being Helpful. But doing your job well and ensuring that you’re helping deal with the company’s most important challenges isn’t enough. It’s necessary but insufficient. Individuals who are singled out by their colleagues are the go-to folks in the company are also widely known across their teams and sometimes even their entire organizations. They are far more likely than average to be recognized by name, and more importantly, people describe them as experts who are generous with their time.

Taking time to help their co-workers puts top performers at the hub of important networks. Take note: This is not your typical networking observation. Top performers don’t get to know people simply to build an impressive collection of business cards. Theirs is not a primarily self-serving motivation. Top people are widely known and respected by others not because of their frequent contact, charm or likability, but because they help others solve their problems.