What Makes Star Performers Tick?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

We all readily acknowledge that wide variance exists in how individuals perform in their work settings. But when the performance gap between an average performer and an exemplary performer is actually measured, the delta is nothing short of startling.

One thing is certain: after working with more than 100 different roles across industries and functions, we are convinced that any organization can gain a competitive advantage and improve business results by leveraging the strength of their own star performers. 

And we are repeatedly asked the same questions:

  • Where do superstars come from?
  • What makes them tick?
  • Do they share common characteristics?
  • How did they develop their level of expertise?

The answers are somewhat complex. As you can imagine, there are many myths! 
Research in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success, reveals that it takes at least 10,000 hours of experience or practice to achieve a significant level of expertise. If we conclude that exemplary performance is more than simply thousands of hours of experience, then the job is to figure out what sets star performers apart.


Our experience working with superstars across industries, roles, and even cultures, tells us that some commonalities exist. Here are our current working hypotheses:

  • Rich mental models. Exemplars have a rich way of classifying, solving, or thinking about a performance situation or requirement.
  • Clarity of expectations and quality of feedback. Superstars tend to be accomplishment-focused and, therefore, have a clear picture of the goals of their efforts. The clarity of expectations comes from focusing on what they are accomplishing or producing versus simply what they are “doing.”  
  • Intentionality. The star performer is deliberate in practice, which is designed to specifically improve performance. Our experience shows that a coach, mentor, or teacher is often involved in providing both observation and feedback.
  • Mastery and execution of fundamentals. A major element here is “consciousness” while performing an activity. Star performers tend to be “unconsciously competent,” which means they have trouble accurately describing how they do certain activities.  Their mastery is so refined that they no longer “think” about it (work has become second nature to them).
  • Leverage of resources optimally. The star performers leverage resources extremely well; they know how to make the best use of the tools available to them.

You’re looking for stars in your company.  Such a list compels us to be an exemplary performer ourselves, in the very process of looking for the same.  Which areas could you work on?  That’s not a dialogue question…take time to reflect.
For more on how to shift the performance curve, check out Paul’s previous blog article or browse the full series.

About the Author

Al Folsom, PhD, is VP of Ops and Chief Performance Officer at Exemplary Performance, where he brings more than 25 years of experience in the field of Human Performance Technology (HPT). His most recent work has been helping people and organizations make the transformation to strategic work as strategic business partners and performance consultants. His performance consulting projects include improving performance in the petrochemical industry; supporting underwriters of commercial insurance and medical testing laboratories; and federal work in the area of search and rescue and operational risk management. Dr. Folsom joined EP in 2008 after serving as CLO of the U.S. Coast Guard. He currently resides in Geneva, AL.

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