Seven Qualities That Produce Star Performers

Is excellence the domain of only a select few?

by John R. Graham

Mr. Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales consultant and business writer. He publishes a monthly eNewsletter, “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales.” Contact him at, 617-774-9759 or

Possessing the correct skill sets for a position in today’s economy is absolutely essential –– but it’s not enough to be a star performer. With so much emphasis on job qualifications, it’s easy to give little thought to certain personal qualities that, when combined with outstanding competencies, result in extraordinary performance.

And it’s the star performers that are missing today. In a recent study of 600,000 people Indiana University’s Kelley School of business found that individual performance doesn’t fall on a bell curve. Rather, the researchers found a “power-law” distribution, with a few elite performers contributing the most to the productivity of an organization.

Is productivity destined to be the domain of a few or is possible that star performance can be achieved by looking beyond the right skill sets? It may take a combination of job competencies and certain personal qualities to drive top performance.

Here are seven personal qualities that can make a difference in the workplace:

1. A willingness to speak up
To set the record straight, blathering at the after-work watering hole and texting don’t count. In other words, complaining doesn’t count.

Speaking up is about expressing thoughtful ideas, offering suggestions, taking exception to things when appropriate, and coming to your own defense when you believe you’ve been wronged.

More than anything else, speaking up expresses a commitment to your work and your employer. It sends the signal about something important: you think for yourself, a capability that’s lacking in business. In a highly competitive business environment, those who spend their working lives keeping “a low profile” may find that their tenure is shorter than expected.

2. A sense of modesty

At the start of the commencement season, WSJ Global Vision columnist, Brent Stephens, offered advice to this year’s graduates. At one point he wrote, “Your prospective employers can smell BS from miles away. And most of you don’t even know how badly you stink.”

But self-puffery isn’t limited to recent graduates; it’s pervasive. Just read online self-profiles and self-serving recommendations. There is the sadly mistaken notion that this is the way to do it because everyone does it. Being the exception by letting your ideas and performance speak for you may be the way to attract the attention of those who are looking to align with competent people.

3. People who don’t fall for “magic bullet” answers

It’s so easy to be prisoners of our inclinations –– to the point of actually distorting reality. In a recent insurance publication, an agent states, “Not being on social media is like starting an insurance agency but not having a website and not showing up at meetings.” The assumption seems to be that unless such advice is heeded, an agency is headed for failure.

In fact, the same agent suggests that failing to join certain sites isn’t an option. “I think that not doing something actually is not neutral . . . [it’s] a negative branding signal.”

It’s easy for businesses, both small and large, to fall prey to “magic bullet” solutions. They are dangerous because they drown out rational thought and force decisions that take the focus away from reaching sound business objectives.

4. People who are ruthless with themselves

Self-knowledge is perhaps the most critical trait that star performers share. A young, competent event planner alienated a key partner with her aggressive, demanding approach. When she learned of the partner’s dissatisfaction, she sought advice on how to change and was so successful that the partner declared she had undergone a metamorphosis and was a joy to work with.

...if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless

David McCullough, Jr., a teacher at Wellesley High School, was equally ruthless in his 2012 graduation remarks. With utter clarity, he stated, “You are not special. You are not exceptional.” He went on to say, “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. … We Americans have, of late and to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”

Achievement comes from being ruthless with ourselves.

5. People who possess a deep understanding of the customer

While this should be obvious by now, it isn’t. Far too many of us have substantial difficulty recognizing that customers can either help or hurt a business. If you want proof, just visit any nearby store or speak with almost any “customer service representative.”

A customer of a neighborhood supermarket that’s part of a large chain responded to an electronic message asking for comments about the store, indicating that there were personnel issues and problems with the freshness of the produce. When the information got back to the store manager, the produce department changed dramatically and personnel improvements were quickly evident.

What’s interesting is the store’s management team had long been aware of these particular issues, but nothing happened –– until a customer became involved. “Our neighborhood needs a supermarket where we want to shop,” said the customer to the manager. “And we want to help.”

6. People who avoid using jargon

They may not be the worst words in the world of business, but they’ll do until something else comes along. Here they are: “I thought I would reach out to you.” What’s wrong with “reach out”? It’s pompous. And the list is endless –– bleeding edge, core competency, best practices, leverage, scalable, robust, and impact. There are many others, but you get the picture.

The problem with jargon is that the words don’t have concrete meaning. Jargon is a substitute for clear thinking and communicating accurately. When you see or hear it, it should be a red flag, indicating that the person using it may actually be incompetent.

If you insist on being part of the jargon crowd, go ahead and use it. You’ve given yourself permission to embarrass yourself.

7. People who work without earbuds

Many workplaces have gone silent, compared to the way they were even in the recent past. They’ve become “quiet zones.” There’s almost no talking and the phones gather dust, thanks primarily to email and texting. And it’s not all bad, to be sure, particularly if you work in an open office environment that’s home for most of us during the day.

But that’s not all. There are the pervasive earbuds, which send quite a different message, consciously or unconsciously. They are the new “Do not disturb” or “Leave me alone; I’m in my own little world” signs, replacing the closed office door that sent the same messages.

We feel as if we’re invading the privacy of those wearing earbuds and we feel guilty as they yank them off, as if to say, “Why are you disturbing me?” It seems that more and more of us want to be left alone, to be isolated from everything and everyone else, particularly when working.

Earbuds may be a way of asserting our independence or expressing disdain for what we are required to do on the job. While much office chatter was totally trivial and wasted time, the opportunity for interaction through “conversation” could be stimulating, an effective way to understand each other better, and a contributor to increased productivity, something that’s suffering today.

Well-honed skills are more essential than ever. Yet, certain personal qualities are also critical for creating star performers in every job and profession.