Top Performers: Who Are They and How Do I Find Them?

Pouyan Salehi, Scratchpad CEO & Co-Founder: “You have an interesting story because you were always the top performer, but you're also seeing a lot of salespeople come in and go places through Betts. I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on what you are seeing that is making folks the top performers today?”
Carolyn Betts, Founder and CEO of Betts Recruiting: “I think you either have the DNA to be the top person and you care about that or you don't. And there's a lot of people that are perfectly happy being in the middle and that's okay. Those people are really great too, but the people that want to be at the top aren't going to let anything stop them from being there.”
Pouyan: “How do you feel about -”
Ross Pomerantz, Comedian with an MBA: “You just rocked a lot of people's minds and worlds. They can be taught! They can be - we can grow them!”
Pouyan: “I didn't want to open that door, but that's why we have Ross here.”
Ross: “We can turn B players into A players!”

This is an excerpt from the #1 podcast in the Tech-Comedy-Revenue Team Workspace Designed For Your Workflow category, Beyond Quota. On Carolyn Betts’ episode, she dropped one of the hotter takes in BQ History when she said that “you either have the DNA to be the top person… or you don’t.” Are these simply well-chosen words from Big Recruiting? Or is Carolyn spitting straight 📠?

Turns out, she’s not the only one who feels that way.

In a recent poll conducted by Scratchpad’s official Instagram page, hundreds of respondents answered the question: “Can Top Performers be trained or Do you need Top Performer DNA?”

  • 59% said that you need the DNA vs. 41% that said they can be trained
  • And as a follow-up, 65% said it’s easier to hire a top performer vs. 35% that said it’s easier to train them.

However, according to an even larger poll by Joblist of 306 HR professionals and 734 full-time employees who had been recruited in the last year, 75% of HR professionals agreed that fostering current talent was better than poaching a high-performer.

Why do 65% of people in our official poll (66% if you include Carolyn because that’s how math works) believe that it’s easier to hire Top Performers while 75% of HR professionals believe that it’s easier to train them internally? Who’s right, who’s wrong, and what the cuss are we supposed to do with this information???

While Carolyn and the surveys are mainly referring to salespeople, there will always be the proverbial rockstars, the middle of the pack, and the ones who just don’t work out in any industry, for any company, or on any team. Don’t just take my word for it, take the Harvard Business Review and Bain & Company’s research on top performers that concluded, “Across all job types, we estimate, the best performers are roughly four times as productive as average performers. That holds in every industry, geographical region, and type of organization we’ve examined.”

The key is determining who those top performers are and building a culture that will allow those top performers to fulfill their potential.

So who are these top performers and what makes them tick?

I’ve been obsessed with this question for years and my thesis is that there are two main ingredients for every top performer: Creativity and Competitiveness.

By Creativity, I don’t mean they are good at painting unless that is their chosen profession in which case they’re probably one of the best in their field. Merriam-Webster describes Creativity as “the ability to create.” Thanks Merriam. However, the 4th definition of “create” is “to produce through imaginative skill.” Being resourceful, problem-solving, critical thinking or thinking outside the box, et cetera. This is one main ingredient.

The second is Competitiveness. For most people this is an ugly word because if someone is too competitive, it can lead to ugly relationships and bad team chemistry. Merriam-Webster defines competitive as “relating to competition” because apparently Merriam and Webster aren’t competitive enough to make a good freaking dictionary. Or maybe they can only define verbs because the definition of “compete” sums it up much better: "to strive consciously or unconsciously for an objective (such as position, profit, or a prize): be in a state of rivalry.” There is good and bad that can come from Competitiveness. The bad is being obsessed with the rivalry to the point that you’re hurting yourself. The good is striving for an objective that results in being a top performer.

In the same Scratchpad Instagram poll, we asked the following questions to better evaluate this thesis. These were the results:

What’s the most important trait of a top performer:

  • Competitiveness: 41%
  • Creativity: 39%
  • Knowledge: 9%
  • Other: 11%

What’s more important: will or skill?

  • Will: 77%
  • Skill: 23%

Is will a skill?

  • Yes: 71%
  • No: 29%

Are you a Top Performer?

  • Yes: 58%
  • No: 20%
  • My Mom Thinks I Am: 22% (The writer of this piece fell into this category)

We didn’t just pick Creativity, Competitiveness, Knowledge, and Other randomly. Besides years of my own conversational research, I’ve been fortunate to sit in on several Beyond Quota episodes where Pouyan and Ross interview top performers including Kris Rudegraap, Lori Richardson, and current Sales Evangelist-former aspiring Mango-Seller, Donald Kelly. Here’s Donald’s perspective on what makes a top performer in sales:

So many people will talk about the race car versus the driver. And I think so much of it has to do with the driver in the sense that it's the sales reps versus the product. Anyone can sell the software that we have but can somebody really thrive? What makes the top performers? That fascinates me and we've studied some of those folks, and we've had them on our podcast. We saw what they have done and what they consistently do, and it aligns with the principles of really good mango sellers. They're creative, they have a process, they stick to that process, they master fundamentals. They've honed their pitch, they've practiced and [sales] becomes a part of them.

In the poll, Competitiveness and Creativity clearly stand out as the two most important traits. Competitiveness goes back to Betts’ thesis statement that “you either have the DNA to be the top person and you care about that or you don't.”

Betts didn’t expound on Creativity, but it’s clear that simply caring about winning is not enough. In order to be a top performer, you need Creativity to find ways to succeed that aren’t obvious. If something’s not working, how do you think outside the box to accomplish a task? When plans A through E fail, can you adapt and make a plan F?

In sales, this could mean finding a creative way to make your mangoes stand out from all the other mangoes in Jamaica, or this could mean sending a pair of LeBron basketball shoes to a CEO who’s been avoiding your calls, but absolutely loves King James.

If you only have Creativity or only Competitiveness, you may still be successful, but reaching the level of top performer will be harder to accomplish. However, if you have that combination as well as a little sprinkle of “Knowledge” and “Other,” you’re going to be in great shape.

As the next two questions illustrate - Will vs. Skill and Is Will a Skill? -  even if someone is “born” with a great work ethic or creative gifts, these are traits that have to be continuously developed. Michael Jordan didn’t just roll out of bed and become the most athletic person in the world, he worked to accomplish that. He also didn’t roll out of bed and have the best work ethic in the world, he had role models and teachers who helped him develop that. He was also the 3rd player drafted in his class meaning that we often miss top performers even when they’re standing right in front of us… or iconically floating through the air above our heads.

So how do we spot a top performer (and hire or retain them)?

Whether it’s hiring externally or evaluating internally, there are a few ways to determine whether someone is a top performer.

1. Don’t just look at numbers. Find the story behind them.

Someone might be exceeding quota every quarter, but maybe that’s because their mom is the VP of Sales and hands them all of the biggest deals on a silver platter. Maybe they have the best territory. Maybe they’re riding a hot streak and ignoring areas to improve like keeping their pipeline up to date by using Scratchpad or failing to cultivate relationships with existing clients, who were ignored after signing a contract.

On the Beyond Quota podcast with Stevie Case, former gaming icon known as KillCreek and current CRO at Vanta, she states that “people that have always crushed it and know no different concern me. They don't have the perspective because they haven't had to fight and they haven't had to suffer.

“There are things that every person can control, but if you can come up with something that's a win in a different way, it gives you a story. And as a sales leader, that's what I'm looking for. I understand that performance varies, but when I'm looking at my team, I look for people that are telling me, ‘I understand I didn't make my number. But here's what I did about it. I went out and I sent 100 emails a day, I generated this much pipeline, I figured out a new play. And I know it hasn't paid off yet, but I'm gonna keep hustling until it does.’ Those people I will always keep.”

Obviously performance matters, but the true proof of a top performer is found in the intangibles.  The story that Case just told shows both Creativity and Competitiveness. If you hear someone tell a story like that in an interview or a performance review, they’re probably a top performer.

Don’t just look at the stats and numbers when you’re evaluating someone. Ask questions to learn what their story is. When you can articulate someone’s story, you have a better understanding of who they are and what they can bring to the table.

2. Do look at the numbers though.

“I would say if somebody is not hitting the leading indicators in the first month, then they're probably not going to make any changes,” says Donald Kelly. By indicators, Kelly is referring to numbers that tie to revenue. It could be meetings booked for an SDR or deals closed for an Account Executive in a high-paced sales cycle.

While Kelly is mainly referring to entry-level sales roles, we spoke to a few managers from non-sales departments who said “it only takes a week to know whether someone is going to work out or not.” Let alone be a top performer. (These managers chose to remain anonymous so they could speak freely on the topic.)

However, according to a poll from the TheUnsubscribeShow that had over 1,300 respondents of mostly salespeople, this is how long they said it takes to know if someone is a top performer:

How long does it take to know if someone is a top performer poll

Also, according to the previously mentioned Joblist survey, they asked “How long does it take to train an employee with potential to the level of a high-performer?” and got these results:

  • 1 to 3 months: 7%
  • 4 to 5 months: 24%
  • 6 to 11 months: 42%
  • A year or longer: 27%

If you’re evaluating someone based on numbers alone, then it appears waiting at least 6 months to see performance-based results is a good benchmark, but as we’ve already learned, the most important indicators of a top performer are the intangibles like Creativity and Competitiveness. And you measure those by learning their story.

Ask Them These 3 Questions:

  1. Do you love to win or hate to lose?
  2. If you crush quota, but don’t finish at the top of the leaderboard, how are you feeling?
  3. What's the best example you have of being creative to get a deal done?

The correct answer for question #1 may seem illogical but it’s ‘hate to lose.’ I’m also not going to call myself a top performer, but there is video of me collapsing on the court crying when I lost my YMCA basketball championship in 1st grade. The reason why ‘hate to lose’ is the right answer is because while a top performer loves to win as much as anyone else, what makes them winners is the fact that they will do everything in their power to not lose. They take the extra time to stress over every minute detail that could lead to a loss and make a plan to overcome it. Stevie Case says at the end of her interview that she “was a hate to lose person. Those first 10 years it was a scarcity mindset. That's the thing. You gotta transcend all the way to ‘love to win.’” There is a world where a ‘love to win’ person is a top performer as evidenced by Case today, but what got her to this position was a ‘hate to lose’ mindset.

Question #2 is another question that reveals Competitiveness. Every top performer that I’ve asked this too starts by answering in a high-pitched voice about how appreciative they’d be to crush quota because they don’t want to seem like jerks for making a lot of money, BUT then their regular voice comes back and they admit that it would eat them alive.

Question #3 reveals Creativity. This is a great way to learn someone’s story and gage their resourcefulness. While it might be a rehearsed answer and some companies like to ask riddles to put Creativity skills on the spot, companies like Google stopped asking brainteasers in job interviews because their data showed that it didn’t predict how well someone would do on the job. Although they are fun, just ask Norm Macdonald.

What’s more important: creativity or competitiveness?

This can also count as question #4 because I ask this question to nearly every top performer that I come across and they all say the same thing: Creativity. This is after they say that they hate to lose more than they love to win and that despite crushing quota, they’re not going to feel great if they’re not number one so they’ve already established themselves as competitive psychos. And I mean that in the best way.

But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Creativity is the most important because as Julia Scenderski, Top Performer at Gretel.Ai says “anyone can be competitive, but if you’re not trying something new then it doesn’t matter.” The real answer is you need a balance of both. Hopefully this helps you find the next top performer for your company. But before you start thinking you don’t have any top performers at your company right now, maybe you don’t have product-market fit, don’t have the right tools in place, or don’t have the right leaders to build a culture of success. The last thing you want to do is 🧢 a top performers’ potential.