“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
An Unlikely Champion
The Comrades Marathon is one of South Africa's annual sporting highlights. It's a 56 mile (90 kilometer) ultra marathon that takes place in the middle of our southern hemisphere winter. It owes its name to the many thousands of athletes who, over its 97-year history, have helped their fellow competitors to cross the finish line.
The cutoff time for receiving a medal is 12 hours. Just let that sink in: 12 hours of running! Now imagine running that far, for that long, with a physical disability.
There was one man you couldn't fail to notice in the 2018 race. Xolani Luvuno was allowed to start long before the rest of the field, and it took him longer than 12 hours to complete the distance. But he competed on crutches, because he only has one leg.
That alone is a remarkable story, but it was the finale of an even more extraordinary tale…
A Second Chance to Succeed
Xolani grew up in a poverty-stricken, drug-infested neighborhood. He dropped out of high school at 16 and turned to a life of crime. He became a gangster, notorious for robbing people at knifepoint.
Xolani spent five years in prison and, after his release, he was diagnosed with cancer in his one leg, and had it amputated above the knee.
Homeless, with no qualifications, and with even a life of crime ruled out by his disability, he turned to drugs. He begged during the day, and would "shoot up" at night.
One day a man stopped to chat to the one-legged beggar he saw near his business every day. When the man asked if he was an addict, Xolani denied it, and the man offered him a job.
Two days later, Xolani confessed he was an addict, but that he wanted to recover. He decided to go cold turkey and suffered terrible withdrawal symptoms, but a week later he was "clean." Unfortunately, he started drinking and subsequently lost his job.
Two weeks later, Xolani returned and asked if he could have his job back, without pay, so that he could prove that he was sober and willing to work. The businessman gave him a second chance.
Top Performers Don't All Look the Same
The company that hired Xolani offered their employees financial incentives to run, to boost their health and well-being. The incentives were linked to race distances, and the biggest incentives went to employees who finished the famous Comrades Marathon.
Xolani decided to start training for the Comrades – and he completed it with the owner of the business by his side. But he didn't take his prize money. Instead, he asked his employer to donate it to a school for disabled children.
What Do Top Performers Do Differently?
Xolani wasn't the fastest person in the race. But, in my opinion, he is still a top performer. He had to overcome a deprived upbringing, a terrible reputation, and a criminal history, and he had to beat incredible odds both mentally and physically.
Yet, he went on to become the first person to complete the Comrades Marathon on one leg and two crutches.
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:
How to Be Conscientious
Personal Goal Setting
Eight Common Goal Setting Mistakes
Managing High Achievers
Beware the "Cheater's High!"
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