Traits of Top Performers

Having placed close to 900 candidates and conducted interview trainings for 68 law firms, I spend a lot of time thinking about what traits make someone a great addition to a team. What I have determined is that someone’s ability to get stuff done outweighs smarts and resume accolades. My frequent conversations with Directors and CMOs confirm that top performers have three critical traits:

  1. They focus on the right information and process it quickly. This means asking the right questions when a project is assigned and knowing what you don’t know. I have seen high school interns who possess this ability and employees with masters degrees who do not. This is not just about intelligence and motivation, but about judgment. For example, if someone has a high need for significance and needs to feel smart, they may overthink a situation and make it more complicated than it is. They may come to you with questions that are not relevant and point out things that have nothing to do with the problem that needs to be solved, just to show off how “smart” they are rather than to add value. Have you ever experienced this?
  2. They execute and get things done efficiently. A top performer has the ability to deliver desired results. They know what to focus on and are efficient at using available resources. If one of your team members doesn’t have this ability, projects get stalled. Two major issues that can be affecting your employees’ ability to get stuff done are a lack of confidence at knowing when a project is good enough to show you, and not knowing where to start or what steps to take to complete the project. Occasionally this stems from a lack of training; more frequently is comes from a perfectionist tendency. I use to think it was just procrastination, but the more I explored this I found that these people were afraid to “release” a project until they thought it was perfect. I have had to coach many A-student interns that sometimes a quickly executed B+ is enough. This is a very radical concept for them! It starts to makes sense for them when I say we need to do what’s best for the business – spending two hours on a project that only warrants 45 minutes is a not smart use of time.
  3. They have situational awareness. The best contributors have the ability to size up situations and people, and adjust their work style accordingly. For example, they know a certain tone is expected when communicating with Partners. Or, they quickly grasp the nuances of your work environment (what I call the “unwritten rules”), and they incorporate them into their work product.

The reason it is so hard to uncover these critical traits before hiring is that most candidates aren’t self-aware as to how they actually perform. So what is the solution? I have the candidate perform as part of the interview process. For example, we have a written assessment where we ask candidates to draft an email to assess whether they “get” tone and can write appropriately for a Partner. In addition, we monitor how long it takes them to do the complete written assessment. The average candidate takes 30-40 minutes to complete this assessment. When a candidates takes a long time to complete it, its a red flag that they may have trouble executing in an efficient manner. We asses judgement by asking behavioral questions. By hearing how the candidate has used their judgment and assessed situations in the past, we have a better sense of how they are likely to perform in the future.

I encourage you to be keenly aware of these characteristics when you look for the right talent for your team!


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