Advancing Your Career: Traits of High Performance Employees


“I am stuck in my career”
“My boss does not appreciate my work”
“Why did that person get the promotion and not me?”

Have you ever had these feelings? I did. And millions others feel that way every day. Psychologists consider it to be the leading factor of anxiety and stress at modern workplace.

I struggled with these emotions at different stages of my career, and found my answers the hard way. I wish someone had mentored me when I was struggling with these emotions. I wish I knew what I am about to share with you now. I made my journey from an assembly line employee to Vice President of an established company. The process took me about 15 years and taught me a lot of valuable life lessons. Even though this article is driven by a research study, it reflects my thoughts and learning from my own career journey. My intent is to help you figure out what you should be doing so that you are not at the mercy of your boss, but rather your boss is having to figure out ways to keep you engaged.

We are all masters of our destiny. The growth we desire is contingent upon how badly we want it.

You probably have heard of the old adage, “you cannot change anyone, but yourself.” I couldn’t agree more, but there is an additional piece of advice which is often missing, and that is that you can influence others to achieve results you want. Art is in knowing what to do that will influence others to produce the results you want.

A research group headed by Change Anything Labs surveyed more than 650 managers and executives asking them to describe their top performers and what makes them stand out from the rest. The responses revealed a common pattern among these top performers. Managers often label these employees as “High Performance Employees”. These individuals were also the ones that were awarded the most opportunities to advance their career and do more fulfilling work.

Managers go out of their way to retain their high performance employees. Managers are always looking for ways to recognize their high performance employees through various forms of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards, including creating new opportunities to keep them engaged.

In the survey, managers were asked to list qualities of their top performers. The results of the survey can be summed under three major competencies or personal attributes.

  • Expertise: Viewed as expert
  • Prioritizing: Work on the right stuff
  • Resourcefulness: Pull the team

If you wish to turn your job into a fulfilling career where you grow in your role and responsibilities, enjoy going to work, and be appreciated for what you do, you must demonstrate these personal attributes at work. Most employees who aspire to grow in their career are already good at one or more of these attributes, so the steps to becoming a high performance employee might be just the matter of channeling energy into the right direction. That said, this is not a quick fix. It will take time to master these traits; as well as for others to see your contributions and the value you bring to the organization.

Claiming your Expert title
Are you an expert? Is there any part of your job that you know more than others? Is that expertise valuable to your company?

No one is a born expert. We become an expert with practice and time. Expert is also a relative term, so you do not have to strive to be the best in the world. You just need to perform that role better than those around you. Instead of finding outside benchmarks, compare your skills to those of your peers. Find someone in your department or company who is viewed as an expert and ask yourself what makes them an expert. It is much easier to become an expert at something if you can observe and work with someone who already is an expert.

If you cannot identify anything where you can claim an expert title, pick up your job description and extract the list of skills. Prioritize them based on what you think you can master quickly. Ask for help. If you cannot translate your job description into skills, or if your job responsibilities have grown beyond your job description, ask your supervisor to help you create the list of skills. Once you have identified the skills or functions, try to identify the gaps between what you know and what you need to know to become an expert. Take a class. Find a mentor. Read books on that topic. Books are probably the most accessible resource to get started.

Continuous learning is the key to becoming and remaining an expert. If you are working on becoming an expert at a technical skill, read at least one book a year and read it twice. If you are working on soft skills, read at least five books a year. Book can give you a jumpstart, but you must put that knowledge into practice and keep working on it until you reach the expert level.

Whatever you do, do it with passion and the intent to do it better every time. Don’t look for things you are passionate about; be passionate about what you are doing. You will rediscover yourself and what you are truly passionate about.

When you have finished a task, broadcast it. Inform your supervisor or project manager that you have finished your assignment. This will reinforce your credibility as an expert. When you move on to new tasks ahead of schedule, your peers also see you as an expert. Never postpone a task with the assumption that it is easy and you can finish it quickly at the last minute.

If you have few things already under your belt, find out how your expertise adds value to your team, department and the company. In today’s business environment, job functions as changing rapidly, forcing employees to acquire new skills faster than ever, and that trend is likely to grow. Good news is that once you have built the expert mindset, becoming expert at new skills becomes lot easier and change becomes lot easier to manage. Moreover, at times it might be you who will act as the catalyst of change.

Becoming an expert is the foundation, not the end.

Working on the right Stuff
“There are not enough hours in a day…”

I hear this statement repeatedly, and I am confident that you have heard it too, or felt this way at some point in time. Unfortunately, this statement reflects poor personal management skills. It may suggest that you cannot organize your workload or manage time effectively, or lack confidence to push back to stand for yourself. As my mentor would say “master chess players do not have the ability to analyze more positions than others rather they know which positions deserve analysis and which can be ignored”.

High performance employees focus on important things first. Always prioritize your work based on importance in value. If you are not sure what is more important, ask your supervisor. Do not gravitate toward things that come naturally to you. Work on the most important thing first. My technique is to work on more complex tasks in the morning and move to simpler tasks in later part of the day. Our physical and mental energy depletes as we progress through the day, so leveraging this technique will help you maximize your capacity.

Maintaining a to-do list is good for your health. Nothing depletes more mental energy and creates stress than that nagging feeling “am I forgetting something”. Always maintain a task list or projects list. Check with your supervisor to prioritize them based on business value. Ultimately, take it to the level where your activities are aligned with organizational goals. Spend five minute every morning before you start your day to review your to-do list. This can also be a very effective tool to push back and say “no”.

Do not take on tasks you cannot finish. With shrinking work forces and changes in business environment, employees are being asked to do more with less. You may be an expert, but there is a limit to how much one head and two hands can produce. To do more than your current capacity, you have to either work long hours or drop the quality of your work. Dropping quality of your work will challenge your expert title and working long hours will wear you out. Use your to-do list to push back. Either something has to come off the list or postponed before you take on any additional work.

Minimize distractions. Disconnect yourself from the wired technology. Turn off all those chimes and notifications for your email, internet and phone. Control the urge to react or be on top of everything at all times. There are countless resources and books available on time management and minimizing distractions. You will be amazed at how much additional time you can find in a day.

It is as much about attitude as it is the ability. There is only so much you can do, so make sure you do the things that count. Developing workload management techniques will help you feel good about your accomplishments and also reduce workload anxiety and stress.

Becoming Resourceful
“If only Pat can get along with others…”

If you are an expert but have difficulty getting along with others, it is just a matter of time till you will get the boot.

High performance employees can get things done. They are very resourceful in finding help, knowing whom to approach for help, and pulling everyone together to get the job done. They are great team players.

Teamwork and collaboration are the jet fuel for success. In real life, projects rarely go as planned. More flexible the teams, and more closely they work together to solve the unforeseen problems, more successful the projects will be. Above all, it will make the journey more enjoyable and reduce employee turnover.

No single individual knows everything that goes on in an enterprise. It is your expertise combined with the expertise of others that emerges as a business proposition. A one-man show is a rare sight in today’s business environment. It is the success of projects and teams that add value to the business, so look for ways to make your team, project and ultimately the company more successful. If you have finished your tasks, look for ways you can contribute to the success of your team, project and the company.

You do not have to go out looking for ways to help either. If others see you as an expert, they will come to you for help. Nor you must always help when someone asks for help. Remember, to maintain your expert title you must finish your tasks first or be very confident that helping someone will not jeopardize your own timeline.

High performance employees are a familiar name and are known throughout the organization. Resourcefulness is not a popularity contest, but rather the ability to get along with others and a proactive approach to benefit the greater good. To build a strong support network and teams that gives their best to your projects, you must help others first before they help you.

Be a Coach. If you want to be successful, help others become successful. This theme comes up over and over again in many self-help books, both in business and personal development. Helping others does not mean doing their work, but rather helping them become experts or lending a helping-hand when they are in need. In reciprocity, you will receive recognition and visibility in the organization.

Opportunities do not always come when we want them, but when they do, make sure that you are ready for them. It is rare to find a person who will say “No I don’t want to be promoted to a manager”, and it is even rarer to find a person who will say “Here’s the list of what I am doing to prepare myself for a manager position”. Many expect to be promoted or feel that they are ready to take on the next challenge, but fail to realize that companies promote employees to benefit the company first and then to reward the employee. Be that employee who benefits the company. Be that employee who is proactive. Be that employee, the manager dreads losing. Develop your long-term objectives and share them with your supervisor to the extent you feel comfortable. If nothing else, this will trigger a feedback dialog. Be open to feedback. Express your interest in personal development and ask for specific feedback on how to improve.

Mastering these traits will require effort and time. But knowing these traits will help you focus your efforts in right direction. If you are looking for long term success, master your current role first before you set your eyes on the next. Once you have mastered your current role, start exploring what will it take for you to excel in that new role? Find mentors who are already in similar role. Start building a list of things you will do better than the person in that role.

Once you have mastered these traits, you will start to see a transformation in everything around you. You will find yourself in demand and you will find an abundance of opportunities. Now, you will be the boss. You will get to decide what you want to do, with whom and for what.

Take charge of your career. Do not wait for someone else to do something for you. Do it for yourself. Act on things you control. It is your life and you are in-charge, so hold yourself responsible for your career, life and personal wellbeing.

Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler
Ron Klein: My mentor and friend
Image: Master isolated images /

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