What Makes People Top Performers?

Top performers can be made, writes Manfred Kets de Vries, professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change, INSEAD.

High fliers are often a study in paradox. But what makes them so special?

Organisational high flyers display many contradictory behaviour patterns, and it’s this paradoxical nature which makes them so successful. Spotting nascent stars can be a challenge, not least because we can’t always be sure what we’re looking for. Some may first impress us as “golden larvae”, but never complete metamorphosis, while others grow into true butterflies.

What are the qualities that turn them into top performers? Do their connections get them where they are? Or are they just the right people, in the right place, at the right time?

Although many leaders claim to be able to intuitively identify characteristics that differentiate stars, they often assume stardom is somehow innate.

Having listened to the narratives of thousands of highly successful executives, I have noted that stardom is not merely a matter of chance; it’s a question of choice, and beyond that, of cause and effect. Indeed, the old saying “the harder I work, the luckier I get” contains more than a grain of truth. Often this “luck” is a combination of preparation, persistence, and opportunity. As one star confided to me, “it took me 20 years of hard work to become an overnight success.”

Neither is stardom merely a question of having the right connections. It can be very helpful, but many very well-connected people turn out to be highly unsuccessful. Most stars achieve stardom because they possess an intuitive understanding of how to make it happen.

Walking contradictions

What differentiates stars is their knack for reconciling opposites. Psychologist Carl Jung used to refer to “mysterium coniunctionis” – an alignment, a joining, or a resolution of conflict between poles or dualities that define human beings – the ability to hold the tension of the opposites.

True stars have the creative ability to manage short-term and long-term orientation, action and reflection, extroversion and introversion, optimism and realism, control and freedom, holistic and atomistic thinking, hard and soft skills.

They are great at visioning, possess a solid dose of emotional intelligence, take calculated risks, are accountable for their actions. Furthermore, stars like to play with new ideas; have a great tolerance for ambiguity; and are prepared to take a detour from the tried-and-tested, just because it is different.

Their behaviour can be contagious, inspiring others. They make decisions quickly, but can also be extremely cautious. They are rebellious and conservative, playful and responsible, reflective and proactive. They are highly imaginative but maintain a solid sense of reality. And they are both divergent and convergent thinkers. Stars have the ability to switch effortlessly from one mode to the other.

Star makers

The good news for anyone aspiring to stardom, is that top performers can be made. Without discounting nature altogether, nurture plays a very important role. Stars are not born. Many of their psychological factors and behavioural characteristics can be learned, starting from a very young age when our personality is very malleable. If the right foundation is in place at this stage in life, later developmental activities go a long way toward creating stars.

I have been studying top performers for 40 years. For 20 of those years I’ve been running a year-long CEO seminar that offers me holistic, in-depth psychological portraits of top performers. These seminars have provided a wealth of data and the opportunity to observe stars in an intimate setting. Once potential stars have been identified, their development is most effectively cultivated with a strategy focusing on self-assessment, action learning, and role modelling, preferably all three.

Creating self-awareness. The journey to stardom begins inwardly. Self-awareness is one of the most important factors in building self-esteem and confidenceGreater self-awareness helps us acquire a more realistic sense of our capabilities. With greater self-awareness, we will be able to expand our imagination, intuition, will, and purpose.

Action learning is a process of bringing together a group of people with different levels of skills and experience to analyse an actual work problem and develop an action plan, using their jobs as the basis for learning. Through this kind of learning process, executives learn more about their own and others’ way of solving problems.

Role modelling. Most of us learn by example, and learn most from our earliest job experiences. Our bosses at this period in our life are those we will remember best. While it is obviously more attractive to learn from good bosses than bad, less than happy experiences may teach them how not to approach leadership – what things they should avoid doing to others.

High fliers intuitively accept the need to doing common things in uncommon ways and desire always to do things better. To be successful, we must break out of our comfort zone and learn to become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown – and be able to hold the tension of opposites.