“When you truly study top performers in any field, what sets them apart is not their physical skill; it is how they control their minds.”
– Tina Brown, British journalist and author
A Tale of Two Cities
When schools in Mitchell’s Plain, a suburb of Cape Town in South Africa, appear in news headlines, it’s usually for all the wrong reasons.
This suburb is a drug trafficking hot-spot where gang wars are incredibly violent and innocent bystanders are regularly caught in the crossfire. Violence from the street often spills over into schools, because gangs actively recruit teenage pupils to protect their territory.
Socioeconomic factors such as poverty, high levels of unemployment, single-parent households (mostly mothers), child-headed households, a lack of positive male role models, and poor living conditions all play a role.
Yet in 2014, Spine Road High School in Mitchell’s Plain made the news because it had attained a 100 percent exit exam pass rate. Not only is that a rarity in this drug-ridden, poor neighborhood, but it was the first time in the school had achieved it in its history. The principal, Riyaadh Najaar, refused to give up on his goal, and eventually they did it.
Duty of Care
Harlem in New York City experiences many of the same challenges. Many of its residents live below the poverty line, and unemployment rates are twice that of the rest of the city. The neighborhood is disadvantaged, and gangsterism is rife.
The Coalition School for Social Change in Harlem has one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. When students from the school go to correctional centers for committing crimes, they don’t usually return. Enter Geralda Valcin, the school principal since March 2016. She refuses to just “let go” of a pupil.
She once took a care packet of clean clothes to an incarcerated student and insisted that he be allowed to continue his studies in jail. The authorities wouldn’t allow her to see him, and they didn’t let him carry on with his studies, either. But the student knew that someone on the outside cared about his well-being. When he was released, six months later, he went straight back to school and is on track to graduate this year.
Ms Valcin has spent much of her first year reinforcing systems to identify students who are at risk of dropping out, and she works closely with the school’s nonprofit partner to intervene. Although this school isn’t yet where she wants it to be, she has a track record of turning around troubled schools and is determined to do the same here.
How Do They Do It?
So, what is it about these two principals that make them top performers?
- Passion. Both of them have an evident passion for what they do. To them it’s not just about “doing the job.” It’s about making a difference.
- Tenacity. Whether it’s attaining a 100 percent pass rate or slashing the number of dropouts in a school, both of these teachers refuse to give up.
- They have significant goals – and, in both cases, the goals are not about themselves, but about the greater good: the pupils, the school, and society.
- Hard work and active involvement. They consistently go above and beyond the call of duty. Long hours, early mornings, late evenings, giving class, home visits – it’s all in a day’s work for them.
- They don’t leave things to chance, or hope that “the universe” will take care of it. Instead, they draw up action plans and implement them. Ms Valcin, for instance, launched a “Saturday Academy” to help students stay on track and prepare for their exit exams. At his school, thousands of miles away, Mr Najaar introduced longer school days for the senior pupils, to ensure that they not only knew their work, but that they understood it and were able to apply it.
- Vision. Both of these teachers have the vision to go beyond what other people imagine to be possible.
- Courage. Despite setbacks and difficult circumstances, they dare to do whatever needs to be done.
- Inspiration. Both of these principals inspired, mentored and coached their teachers to help them achieve remarkable results.
What Do Top Performers Do Differently?
During our Twitter chat last Friday, we discussed the topic of what top performers do differently. Here are the questions we asked, and some of the responses:
Q1. How do you define top performance?
@ShereesePubHlth Top performers are not always those who are recognized, but those who give their all. There are the “celebrated at work” and the “work to be celebrated.” They’re two different things.
@Singh_Vandana Top performance can be defined as that little extra bit which is visible and differentiates one from the average. Someone who is consistent and passionately committed.
@MduduziTNtuli Top performance is defined by the outstanding results achieved in target time, and especially by smart teamwork.
Q2. Why does top performance matter?
@s_narmadhaa Top performance motivates everyone to top the top performance.
@MissionHired Companies say they want top performers because it pushes people and makes them more money. To me, it only matters if it matters to you. If it helps you grow and meet your goals, great! Being a top performer should not be used to make others feel “less than,” or pit people against each other.
@GodaraAR It leads an organization to new heights and it’s the mother of all innovation.
Q3. Which characteristics do top performers have in common?
@temekoruns Top performers don’t quit during a challenge, always believe in themselves, don’t mind giving up sleep to deliver, always prepare and persist.
@Yolande_MT Top performers never stop learning.
@SaifuRizvi They are the restless people. They believe in finding solutions rather than merely talking about problems. They have a strong urge to contribute to projects.
Q4. What role does does being naturally “gifted” play?
@NWarind Being naturally gifted gives you a head start, but a person still has to perform at his/her best.
@BrainBlenderTec Everyone is gifted in something; it’s about finding out what those gifts are and using them to the max.
@sittingpretty61 Being naturally gifted is often subjective, and yet tangible. You contribute a special skill or innate ability which hopefully fulfills a greater quality of life to others.
Q5. How do top performers approach their work?
@carriemaslen Top performers approach their work logically, start with the end in mind, and keep everyone informed.
@MicheleDD_MT They set goals for everything that they do. Standards of quality and results are high. They are efficient and effective – excellent at managing their time and energy. Very focused and passionate about achieving their goals.
Q6. How can being a top performer be a disadvantage?
@K1llustrator By not being able to be there for everyone simultaneously. A top performer has a lot of responsibilities which depend on his/her skills alone.
@dialbanese Many will come to you for help because they know you’re reliable. If you don’t organize your time properly, this can set you back in your own work or stress you out.
@PG_pmp Many times people have unreasonable expectations of the person.
Q7. What effect do top performers have on other members of a team?
@TwisterKW A double-edged sword, methinks. They can motivate, inspire, mentor… or intimidate, be resented, and demotivate. Though the “effect” is a combination of how they choose to behave and how others perceive/respond/and choose to behave in return.
@Midgie_MT They can help raise the performance for others by being the example, sharing their approaches and strategies.
Q8. What are you willing to do differently from today that will increase your performance?
@PIPability Constantly ask others: “What can I do to help you?” Ask myself: “What one thing, done well, will have the biggest and most positive impact on my job, my co-workers, and my company?”
@nitinwelde Look at what is the metric for assessment. Work towards being the best in each of the metrics. Make a plan to get better in each trait expected and then implement the plan diligently and with determination. Keep fueling the fire in the belly.
Q9. What obstacles do you need to be prepared for while working to become a top performer?
@Jikster2009 Perseverance, resilience, lack of motivation and energy, coping when things don’t go to plan, others trying to sabotage your progress. Mental and physical stresses, too.
@KobusNeethInst You might get impatient if success doesn’t come as quickly as you thought it would. Persevere. Keep on. Patience is your friend!
Q10. In what ways could you help someone to become a top performer?
@ZalkaB By supporting, being genuinely happy for their success and achievements. This mindset can not only be encouraging, but helps attract positivity and success for everyone involved.
@SanabriaJav Provide them with guidance, especially on issues where they lack experience.
To read all of the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat.
The good thing about working with people is exactly that: you work with people! But working with people can also be a major challenge. As a manager and a leader, you won’t always work with top performers – and in our next #MTtalk Twitter chat we’re going to discuss the daily pain points of managing a team. We’d like to know what characteristic, when it’s displayed by a team member, is likely to frustrate you the most. Click here to see all of the options and to cast your vote.
In the meantime, here are some resources that will help you to learn more about becoming a top performer:
Members of the Mind Tools Club can also access the full versions of the following articles:
Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Change
The Power of Good Habits
Stop – Keep Doing – Start
Coaching With Feedback
Using Well-Formed Outcomes in Goal Setting
How to Develop Long-Term Focus