What’s Expected from a High Performer?

Being known as a high-performing employee is one of 5 abilities essential for career advancement (known as the 5 Promotion Principles).

In our introduction to the first principle, Performance, we covered what being a high performer is about and why it matters. In today’s post, I’m going to share ways to strengthen your position as a high performer.

As is the case with all the Promotion Principles, how you develop and excel in each area is very personal and dependent on your personal traits, work beliefs, and values. The recommendations in this post are based on what I experienced and observed over my 25+ years climbing corporate career.

They are intended to be a starting point for you to ideate around what can work best for you, and your specific situation. To hopefully get you thinking! So, let’s get into it…

Being a high performer is table stakes for a successful career. But it’s not as simple as just working hard and delivering results. There are two important aspects to being recognized as a high performer.

  1. You need to meet fundamental expectations–universal aspects of a high performer.
  2. You need to adapt to changing expectations–aspects that vary based on your job level.

Let’s dive into each…

Fundamental expectations of a high performer

Positioning yourself as a high performer can vary based on where you are at in your career journey, but there are also a few universal qualities you’ll want to consider.

First, you need to do your work and go above-and-beyond to deliver results. And to do so in a way that aligns with your company’s values and culture.

High performers make sure they are crystal clear on what is expected of them, so they can knock it out of the park. You volunteer to write the first draft of your annual SMART goals and objectives, and then throw in a few stretch goals to the list too. You take the initiative to regularly review your progress with your manager, ensuring you’re on track to exceed expectations. You don’t wait until the end of the year to check in.

Another quality that applies to all high performers, from entry level to executive ranks, is to be easy:

  • High performers are easy to work with. They are drama free. This means you don’t complain, lose your temper, blow things out of proportion, fight with coworkers, gossip—you get the idea.
  • High performers are easy to manage. They pay close attention to how their manager prefers to work with them and adapt accordingly. It also means you keep your manager in the loop on your work—no surprises, ever.

Beyond these universal qualities, performance expectations can vary based on your level.

Performance expectations vary based level

For simplicity’s sake, I’m highlighting a few ways to show you’re a high performer across 3 different career levels (even though we all know career ladders are much more nuanced than this). 

  • Junior Level (individual contributor: coordinators, specialists, program managers) – taking initiative, growing technical knowledge or subject expertise, proactive problem solving, giving your best efforts. And doing it all by working well with others and having a positive attitude.
  • Mid Level (department or team leadership: people managers, directors) – driving continual improvement, not being satisfied with status quo, coming up with new initiatives, programs, or methods to quantifiably improve team results, reduce waste (save money or time), or grow revenue.
  • Senior Level (functional leaders or executives: vice presidents, senior vice presidents, c-suite) – increasing your organization’s impact on the business, driving cross-functional wins, empowering and inspiring innovation in others.

This advice may sound obvious, yet I can tell you from first-hand experience that people often don’t perform these basic actions.

Avoid these performance pitfalls

Here’s a few examples of situations I observed during my career where professionals failed miserably at being seen as a high performer. All of these employees were smart, hard working professionals–yet they were unable (or unwilling) to meet performance expectations:

  • Lack of doing the work or going above and beyond: A junior staff member who spent more time campaigning across the company for his next job than delivering results in his current job. I helped him job-hop right out of my team.
  • Not easy to work with or manage: A mid-level manager who worked hard and delivered strong results—but had an enormous chip on his shoulder over his perceived mistreatment from 10+ years at the same company. His negativity turned into team toxicity, and he had to go.
  • Not meeting performance expectations: A mid-level manager who feared change and held on as tight as she could to the status quo and “the way we’ve always done things.” Last I heard, she was demoted to an individual contributor role.
  • Not meeting performance expectations: A senior leader who spent his time micromanaging work three-levels down in his organization, squashing any ounce of accountability or innovation from his more than qualified team. I saw a LinkedIn post that he “resigned” from his role last year.

So why were otherwise good employees unable to meet performance expectations? Well, in the first two cases, these professionals failed to meet the universal expectations of being easy to work with and going above and beyond. And the last two examples show the downfall of not adapting your performance to meet the expectations of a higher job level. Both of these leaders were likely meeting expectations of someone a level or two below.

Two key takeaways

Being a high performer is table stakes for a successful career. But it’s not as simple as just working hard and delivering results.

To be recognized and rewarded as a high performer, you need to

1. Excel in meeting fundamental,  universal performance expectations. Cover the basics — go above and beyond, be easy to work with and easy to manage.

2. Recognize that performance expectations change as you advance your career. You must be willing to adapt behaviors, develop new skillsets, and rise to the challenge.

And once you have these two aspects of being a high performer covered, the next critical step is making sure the right people in your organization recognize and see you as the top performer you are. More on that in a future post!