Most Underulized Asset on Your Team

The Surprising Way Most Leaders Waste Their Top Performers

Most Underulized Asset on Your Team

Authors’ note: this post is based on a sales leader we know. We’ve changed all names and some telling details.

Are you getting as much out of your top performers as you could? Maybe you have people who are contributing three or four times as much as others on your team, and you think there’s not much more you can ask of them. But can you? Is there really that much more value you could leverage?

There’s a good chance the answer is yes. The full value of a top performer goes way beyond what many leaders consider. A case in point comes from the story of Samuel, the head of sales at a division of a telecomm company.

I (Jamie) first met Samuel a couple of years ago at a leadership conference where I spoke about how a new type of data called WHY data was helping leaders build better teams, faster. Samuel had missed my presentation and came by to speak with me afterward. During our conversation, Samuel expressed some concern about hitting his team’s sales targets for the year.

Disaster Waiting to Happen

When I asked why he was worried, Samuel explained that Shirley, one of his top performers, had just resigned. Her husband took a new position in Europe, and the whole family was moving there. Losing Shirley was going to hurt. Since shortly after joining his team three years ago, Shirley was one of five or six people whose name was always at the top of the leader board. Like many teams, Samuel’s team owed the bulk of its results to a small percentage of top people—people who didn’t just deliver 20 or 30 or even 50 percent more than most team members, but who frequently delivered three or even five times more. A lot of leaders, sales leaders especially, could afford to lose some people on their team—so long as none of them are top performers. But lose one or two superstars and disaster can ensue.

Harsh Reality

Samuel knew he was too dependent on a small group of people, and he was trying everything he could to get more Shirleys. He worked with leading recruiters, had a compelling employer brand, and a robust hiring process. He only hired people with impressive track records, and the onboarding and training his employees received was as good as it gets. The harsh reality though, as Samuel explained, was that not everyone who looks like they’re going to be a top performer emerges to actually be one. And the ones that do may not stay forever.

Something Crucial Missing

As Samuel spoke, one thing struck me as quite revealing. For Samuel, the value of his top people was based on the contribution they made to his team—how they performed and the results they delivered. Losing a top person meant losing their present and future performance. But what he didn’t say also stood out. Did he know why his top people performed so well? When I asked Samuel this question, he considered it for a long while, before beginning to tell me that Shirley was a great communicator and made strong connections with people. He also felt that she had a genuine interest in helping others, and that clients appeared to trust her.

A Matter of Opinion

I then asked Samuel how he knew that these attributes directly correlated with Shirley’s performance. Samuel couldn’t really answer that question other than to say that it was his gut, and his gut was usually right. Samuel also believed these traits were common to his other top people. In fact, he looked for them when hiring.

And yet he still struggled to find other top performers. As I explained to Samuel, this indicated a few possibilities: 1) it’s simply hard to find other top performers, 2) his perceptions of the traits of Shirley and his other top people weren’t completely accurate, 3) the performance of his top people depended on traits he hadn’t identified, or 4) any combination of these first three factors.

Surprising Insights

Samuel seemed open to these possibilities, but wasn’t sure how to explore them. Fortunately, there is a way. The science of performance insights offers a way to get objective data on who someone is and why they perform at the level they do. It’s a new type of data called WHY data, and obtaining this data can frequently be done online by creating a profile of every person on a team in as little as fifteen minutes.

Unfortunately for Samuel, he had lost the opportunity to obtain the WHY data on Shirley. However, he still had his other high performers to analyze. A few days after the conference, Samuel ran the WHY data on these people, as well as the rest of his team. While some of the results were consistent with his expectations, there were a few surprises.

As he had thought, Samuel’s top people had a much higher natural inclination to influence others than his low performers. They did not, however, all possess a strong interest in helping people. Some did, some didn’t. In fact, more of his underperformers were inclined this way. Samuel was also surprised to discover that the two qualities that impacted performance the most were how quickly his top people recovered from setbacks, and their tolerance for risk. Samuel hadn’t really considered how vital these factors were; but that’s not really his fault. Leaders often miss critical differences like these, because they don’t always manifest as obviously as we might think.

The Difference a Year Makes

Armed with these new insights, Samuel began obtaining the WHY data on every potential new employee. By doing this he was able to objectively identify several people over the following months who were built like his small group of top performers. He hired some of them, and within the year, the bulk of them joined the high performers on the leader board, growing his group of top people from about five to ten. As you can imagine, the impact of this change was dramatic, and resulted in Samuel’s best year.

The Leader’s Weakness

One of the lessons from Samuel’s story is that despite the fact that many of us believe in our ability to judge others and to accurately identify the attributes that impact job performance, we are not as good at it as we think. As Frank Bernieri, a professor at Oregon State University and an expert in the area of human judgment, once put it in The Guardian, “If we want to form a truly accurate impression of someone, it pays to have a certain lack of faith in our own abilities. Studies indicate that people who tend to be more confident about their judgments of others are in fact less accurate.” I should add that even those who are good at seeing the differences between people have a more difficult time recognizing which differences actually underpin superior performance.

A Shame

The other lesson from Samuel’s story is that leaders can build better teams when they look—not just at the results their top people deliver—but at why they deliver those results. When that information is objective and accurate it can make the job of finding other top performers significantly easier. It’s a shame that Samuel let Shirley leave his team before truly understanding why she was such an outstanding performer. Those insights would have added to his ability to raise the performance of his team.

Something More Valuable

As a final word, every top performer has the potential to give you something more valuable than just their results; they can give you the information you need to continue finding more people like them. Gathering that information is a way to fully leverage every single high performer on your team. Before your next one leaves, make sure you understand exactly why they are so good. That understanding will set you up to build a team full of high performers and make their loss less devastating.


If you haven’t already read What to Why, the free 20-minute eBook changing how leaders build top teams, which we coauthored, you can download it here.





How Would You Handle This Coach’s Dilemma?

Coach's Dilemma

As a leader, how would you approach the following?

You recently joined a new organization to lead its marketing department, and you’ve started your first round of coaching sessions with everyone on your team. Up next is Carolyn.

Carolyn has some outstanding strengths. She’s a visionary thinker and an ideas machine who is constantly generating concepts for innovative marketing campaigns. But she also has some weaknesses. For example, she’s not always reliable when it comes to following through on her ideas.

Fork in the Road

What’s the best way to coach Carolyn in order to get her to make the kind of positive behavioral changes that will help you and your team reach its goals? Do you address her weaknesses and the ways she could make some improvements? Or do you essentially ignore her weaknesses and focus on the positives to nurture Carolyn’s strengths?

These questions lie at the heart of a dilemma faced by coaches everywhere. Traditional coaching, the kind most of us are familiar with, is based on improving weaknesses. But an approach focused exclusively on someone’s strengths is gaining popularity.

But is strengths coaching actually more effective? Is it really more likely to get someone like Carolyn to change for the better?

What the Science Says

A team of neuroscientists set out to study this question and recently published their results in Social Neuroscience. The team of researchers tested the two coaching styles on separate groups of undergraduates. For the positive style, they asked questions like “If everything worked out ideally in your life, what would you be doing in 10 years?” For the approach focusing on improving weaknesses, they would ask things like, “What challenges have you encountered or do you expect to encounter in your experience here?”

Then the researchers looked at what was happening inside the brains of the subjects using MRI technology, and discovered some revealing differences.

Revealing Differences

According to a Greater Good Science Center report from UC Berkeley, the positive approach lit up areas of the brain associated with the motivation to pro-actively pursue lofty goals. In contrast, the improving-weaknesses approach activated areas in the brain associated with stress and defensiveness, encouraging behaviour to avoid harm or loss.

As the Berkeley report writes, “Although the authors acknowledge that much more research needs to be conducted on the topic, their results offer a first glimpse at the neurological basis of why people coached by positive, visioning-based approaches tend to be more open emotionally, more compassionate, more open to ideas for improvement, and more motivated to pro-actively make lasting behavior changes than are those coached in ways that highlight their weaknesses.”

Indeed, more research needs to be done. In fact, as New York Magazine’s Science of Us recently argued, there is lots of research pointing to performance improvements from traditional coaching. However, these studies only compared traditional coaching against no coaching. What isn’t known is whether strengths coaching would result in even greater performance improvements. So although there’s no clear-cut answer, if you’re the type of coach who believes that strengths coaching is the best way to get someone like Carolyn to change their behaviour, you now have a little brain science on your side.

If you haven’t already read What to Why, the free 20-minute eBook changing how leaders build top teams, which I coauthored with ClearFit founder and CEO, Jamie Schneiderman, you can download it here.





Introducing Our Long-Awaited Book: What to Why

What to Why
Click here to download the book for free

While What to Why is only a twenty-minute read, it has been years in the making and explores a fundamental shift that is changing how leaders build high-performing teams.

I wrote it with the hope that it will help you build your own world-class team.

Let me quickly share with you the shift in my own life that led to What to Why.

Saying No to the Dream

In 2006, I received an offer for the dream job that I had spent the previous dozen years working toward.

I turned it down.

The path to that decision began six months earlier when my daughter was born. Time spent with her was special and made me reflect on my life in a way I hadn’t before. The one area that consumed my thoughts was work.

Since graduating with a degree in business, I had gone on to work in senior roles at major brands. I was following the path that made logical sense. Although I had moments when I was passionate about what I was doing, I often found work frustrating and unfulfilling.

I wondered if there was a better path for me. And so I set off on a journey to discover work that I would both love and excel at.

The “Aha” Moment

I got lots of advice. Most of the people who gave me guidance pointed me in the direction of my past experiences—more of the same.

But somewhere along the way, I met some experts who were discovering new insights around work, happiness, people, and performance. After spending just a short amount of time with them, they were able to show me why

I was unhappy with my career. There was a big disconnect between the work I preferred and the work I was actually doing. These were insights about myself I wished I had known years earlier. This was powerful stuff. It was a light- bulb moment when I realized how many other people must be in the same situation.

I knew that insights like this could radically improve the way organizations and people came together.

And so, by the time the offer for my dream job came in, I decided to not go down a path I knew wasn’t a fit for me. Instead, I founded ClearFit to take these new insights to businesses everywhere—and help create a world with happy employees and more productive organizations.

Nine Years Later

It’s been nine years since that decision. While building a business has certainly had its moments, I am definitely in the right job and have been able to be true to myself. In these same nine years, thousands of organizations have begun to use these new insights to improve the happiness of their employees as well as increase the performance of their teams. It has created a shift that I call “WHAT TO WHY.”

So what exactly do I mean by WHAT TO WHY? The twenty-minute story in this book will answer that question. Although it is based on a sales leader I know, the insights are applicable to any team in any industry.

So, if you are a leader who wants to learn about a new approach to increasing the performance of your team, this book is for you. If you are an individual who is struggling to find your path, as I was nine years ago, I have no doubt you’ll find the insights helpful too.

Click here to meet the leader who went from WHAT TO WHY and to download the book for free.