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What Is High Performance?

by David Brock on October 29th, 2013

I  was speaking to a client a few weeks ago about some “performance” issues he saw in the organization.  He was relatively new in his job and was besieged with performance issues.

In our discussion, I expected him to talk about the low performers and how he should be dealing with them.  Instead, he was troubled by some people viewed by many in the organization, including his boss, as high performers.

Since high performers are role models of what is expected in sales, normally, we would be looking at how to replicate the performance of these people across the organization.  But my client was troubled by a number of the so called “high performers” and the bad examples they set within the organization.

Each one of these individuals had one thing in common, they always made their numbers.  So from that limited view, they were high performers.  The problem was each was wreaking varying degrees of havoc within the organization and with customers.

Here are some of the problems with just a few “top performers:”

One would always make his quota, even exceed it.  But he only made it in the core product line.  Those products were maturing and the company had invested a lot in acquiring new companies with new product lines to sell.  The strategy was clear, these new product lines represented the future of the company.  Success in these was critical, yet this “high performer” refused to sell those products.  He wasn’t comfortable with them, he didn’t need to sell those to make his number, so despite all the coaching, he just sold the older core products.

Another also always made his number.  But he had a complete disdain for all the stuff he called “bureaucracy.”  This meant reporting, forecasts, keeping CRM up to date and everything else.  He just refused to do it.  Basically his manager would plead, sit down with him and develop the reports himself.  The sales person kept saying, “This stuff is useless to me, it gets in the way of selling.”

The third was similar.  He always made his number, but wreaked havoc on the organization.  He demanded and required huge amounts of support.  But he wasn’t a team player.  He never thanked people for the support they gave him, or for helping make him successful.  When others asked him for help, he would turn them away, saying he didn’t have time.  When people wouldn’t help him, he’d get angry, escalating to management, ultimately getting his way—because he was a “high performer.”

So the issue underlying all of this is “What is high performance?”  Is high performance only about making the number–however possible?  Or is there a richer dimension to high performance?

To me, it’s pretty easy.  High performance is about mastery and consistently high performance across all dimensions of the job.  Making the number is one element of the job, an important one, but not the total job of a sales person.

So what do high performers do beyond just making the number?  Some areas:

They sell the entire product line, executing the company strategy.  They do this not only because it’s right for the company, but because it’s right for their customers.  They want to make sure their customers are getting the greatest value from everything the company offers.

They collaborate internally, helping their peers, working with marketing, customer service, product management and others.  They know they can’t be successful without the help and support of others, and they are interested in the success of others.

They constantly seek to improve and they help their customers and their companies improve.  They bring new ideas and insights to everyone they work with–not just customers.

They cheerfully comply with reporting and other standards.  They know that management and the rest of the company needs information to do their jobs.

They leverage all the tools, systems, and processes their company provides, not because they have to, but because they know these improve their own effectiveness.

They set an example in everything they do.  They know that because they are high performers, others look at them and are influenced by them.

They are leaders–even though they may not be in a leadership role.

Back to my client’s challenge.  His challenge really wasn’t the problems created by these so called high performers.  The challenge was a leadership problem, because for a long time leaders had defined high performance in one dimension only, making the number.  That’s why the overall organization was having problems.

Sales people weren’t doing the complete job.  They weren’t performing to their highest potential, they weren’t performing to the organization’s expectations, they weren’t executing the company strategy and contributing to their peer’s and the company success.  As a result of this, the organization was struggling because the people they thought were high performers weren’t.  And the rest of the organization was following them!

If you are a sales person, are you seeking to be a high performer or are you only focused on the numbers?

If you are a manager, do you expect your high performers to do the complete job, to you expect them to be role models for the behaviors you expect of the whole team.

In either case, don’t just settle for making the number.  There is so much more to being a top performing sales professional.

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  1. Hi David- this blog post struck a chord with me. I was one of those problem “high performers” early in my career. I had the highest numbers every month but would not “play ball” on the team. Why? Because the culture of the organization did not align with my internal beliefs. I never “bought in” to the leadership or the way the organization was run. There was no culture of trust (and eventually the original founders split.)

    Once I was able to identify this lack of alignment, I bailed and never looked back. My parting gift was being “docked” for an extra sick day I had taken:) I guess they got even with me!

    Barbara Kimmel, Executive Director
    Trust Across America – Trust Around the World

    • Barbara, what an awesome perspective. Sometimes we are high performers in a situation that does not enable us to perform to their maximum. It’s best to to work in an environment where all dimensions of how we look at high performance are aligned with our employers. Otherwise something will suffer, which ultimately impacts performance.

  2. This is spot on! I call it being held hostage by my people. I often think… I don’t want to lose the volume! But really it’s costing me in unity and culture. It’s tough to get everyone on the same track.

    • Great point Ryan. Often the “high performer” who doesn’t care about unity and culture may have such an adverse impact on everyone else in the organization, that the overall organizational performance suffers. Our job a managers is to maximize the performance of our people and our teams. We have to do both simultaneously.

  3. John Sterrett permalink


    True, you need to expect more from the high performers.

    But if someone complies with all the points you mention, and doesn’t make his / her number, they will never be called a high performer. Such is my situation right now, new in a great organization, building a new territory, trying to do everything I can, but still struggling to make the number.

    I think making the number is the price of entry, but you don’t get labeled a ‘high performer’ unless you do all the ancillary things that help to elevate the performance of those around you.

    Kobe Bryant always made his individual number. And the team usually had a winning season (except ’04-’05). When he learned to invest time and effort to make those around him better, they won championships.

    • John, you make a great point. Making the number is important, but it’s not the only measurement of performance. Perhaps it’s table stakes.

      Having said that, yesterday I was having a conversation with an outstanding VP of Sales. He was talking about his best performer. This individual has been the best in all dimensions and had historically made his number. This year he was falling far short. Fortunately, this executive looked at thing more deeply to understand why the sales person wasn’t making the number (since it was so uncharacteristic). He found there were a set of circumstances in his territory, beyond his control, that impacted his ability to be successful. He also realized the original quota assignment was unfair. In spite of all that, the sales person wasn’t making excuses or blaming things. He was taking responsibility and trying to eke out the best he possibly could.

      It’s refreshing to see both a sales person who constantly does everything possible to maximize performance–in spite of the circumstances; as well as an executive that took the time to understand the issues.

      Thanks for the great comment. Hopefully your managers will see the same thing as this executive. Regards, Dave

  4. Brian MacIver permalink

    Well done Dave!
    You have put front and centre a Key Sales issue.
    Every Sales Manager is responsible to ensure that every Salesperson has a Sales Standards of Performance. Here the 10-30 criteria which ‘define’ the High Performing Salesperson are written down, and then measured in the year ahead! Every game worth playing has a set of governing rules so too should the great game of Sales.

  5. Hey Dave – Congratulations on having this article make the SmartBrief on Sales.

    Hope you are getting a cut of their advertising!

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