Why Top Performers Are Not Always What They Seem And What To Do About It

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John M. O’Connor (Career Pro Inc.) is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina. 

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It’s not just the act of causing someone or an organization to accept as true or valid what is false or invalid. “Top performers” can deceive you before they are even hired, as well as during their tenure with the company.

Here is an example of what starts the downhill slide: Let’s say your company needs to drive revenue over the next two quarters and you, as the district manager, must create three million dollars or a 40% increase in growth or your bonus or even your job may be in jeopardy. In order to get there, you must hire a “top performer” and provide aggressive coaching to your existing team. In the process, you may have to fire a few mid-level performers to create the budget to “upgrade” your talent. You fire three and set out to hire two. 

The criteria for hiring often comes down to straight-line metrics. What were their numbers at the last company? How did they drive revenue, and how much did they bring in? You and your recruiting team find 10 candidates for the senior sales representative role. The interview process distills your selections down to three candidates, all proven industry performers. You make three offers. Two accept. 

Let’s fast forward six months. You now have what you feel is a team of five top performers — the two you recently hired and three who upped their sales game and helped you hit the numbers you needed to reach the 40% increase in growth. Revenue exceeded expectations, too. 

What could possibly be wrong in this scenario? Your team exceeded expectations? Check. You righted the revenue problems? Check. You upped the performance of existing team members? Check. You alienated six other people within your team and they quit? Check. Wait, what? Yes, in the pursuit of your goals, you created a situation where the new team members used some pretty aggressive and ruthless strategies to undercut the competition. In fact, you have more customer complaints than ever before. Your new “top performers” actually lied about delivery times and product capabilities. You now have written complaints to you and your regional president. There is disarray amongst the brethren, and your job, once again, is in jeopardy. What happened?

It’s not wrong to want to grow a district and improve sales, but if you compromise best-practice standards to only hire based on metrics and people who drive numbers, you may create a solution that is greater than the problem. 

You may need to change your thinking around the definition of a top performer and examine both how you motivate your existing personnel and how you hire new personnel. Here are the three tips to help you see through deception to identify true top performers. 

1. Don’t deny that metrics lie. 

If you get tunnel vision about the all-mighty and always talked about metrics of a so-called top performer you may be missing the link you need to tie performance to the “how.” How they got to their numbers may matter more than the number itself. Dig into what customers love about them and how they treat customers. Also ask your new candidates about their relationship with their colleagues, how they treated them and what those people say about the candidate. 

The Lesson: Don’t get drunk on the top numbers. Instead, focus on how your top performers reached the top by cultivating good relationships. 

2. Actually speak to their references. 

In my experience, one of the worst indicators of performance and responsible, ethical and high-integrity behavior is the candidate themselves. Many new, so-called top performing candidates who have built up strong metrics and achievements may have done it at the expense of others. In recent years, I’ve observed that hiring managers forgo interviewing references in the haste to hire, but by actually interviewing references and really listening to what they have to say, you can avoid missing any subtle concerns you should have about this potential new superstar. 

The Lesson: Take the time to talk to clients, colleagues and key connection references before you hire. It may take more time upfront but will likely save you time and energy in the long run. 

3. Don’t lose your testimony for money. 

Even without the religious overtone of this statement, your “testimony” can be defined as your career story tied to the greater purpose you have for work and for your job. Hopefully, your purpose at work is not to “make money at any cost” and is instead related to serving people through your work to create a better world. If your testimony is more the latter than the former then you need to tie all hiring, all training and all motivation to the integrity of purpose that you, and hopefully your company, stand for now. 

The Lesson: Do not relent in doing good. Hire based on a combination of aptitude, attitude and performance to achieve win-win-win outcomes. 

If you stand for high integrity in your work and life you will face tough challenges. To accomplish your goal as a leader, you will need to make personnel changes, up your game and hire true top performers. Make sure you create processes to vet those top performers and don’t lower your standards for anyone. It does matter how you get to the top — not just for you, but for your reputation, your customers, your stakeholders and your higher purpose.

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John M. O'Connor

John M. O’Connor (Career Pro Inc.) is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina. Read John M. O’Connor’s full executive profile here. Read Less