Seeking the top 10%

High Performers are hard to find

By Charles Waldo

Find me someone who gets things done; someone with the ‘Right Stuff.’” 

In an earlier chapter of my professional life, I joined one of the U.S.’s Top Ten executive recruiting firms, doing upper and mid-level management recruitments, mainly in the Midwest, including Hamilton County.  The above quote (or something like it) was often uttered -- with a lot of emotion (negative) -- by the CEO or another high-level executive during my first visit to their organization  to see if I could help them fill a key position.

In most of these exploratory discussions the executive would admit at some point that they had looked inside their own ranks first (the right thing to do) but came up empty-handed.  Not good. Then they ran ads, made industry inquiries, and contacted several contingency-fee- based recruiting firms. Again, no luck.

When asked why their efforts were unsuccessful, the executive generally responded with something like, “Oh, we got plenty of resumes, but I need a doer-type leader in this position; someone who has a track record of getting things done. Someone with the ‘right stuff.’  The fellows we reviewed all seemed to be “follower” types. We’ve given up on trying to do it ourselves and will pay your outlandish fee if you find and help bring on board the right person.”


I then repeated what they had found – that managers (or almost any employee, for that matter) who consistently meet – and usually exceed – ever- higher goals and are constantly moving up the organization ladder are pretty scarce. In fact, studies by several executive recruiting firms put the percentage of “High Flyers” at only around 10% or less of the executive population. These folks are constantly getting recruiters’ calls – they don’t call recruiters – and can move on just about whenever they want if their present company is not meeting their psychological and financial needs. “Sort of like blackmail, isn’t it?” snorted the CEO. “Sort of, but that is the reality of the employment situation,” I’d reply. “Great people are scarce and have many opportunities to move. If your firm has not made the investment to build a pipeline of ready executives,  it will have to pay the price of recruiting from the outside if it wants and needs a top flight person in the open slot right now.”

Sometimes the firm wouldn’t or couldn’t pay the needed compensation and would limp along with the best insider they had. Even when the compensation offered to an outsider was fine,  these types of searches took far more time and effort than usual. True “make things happen” prospects are scarce and much wooing by search consultants and the firm is needed.    In the world of romance, breakups happen, sometimes before the “I do’s” are said; sometimes, more unfortunately, after the knot was tied. The identification and successful recruitment of special candidates is simply “industrial wooing” and match-making.

Qualities that identify Doers

Readers should note that, while the term “executive” is widely used in this article, for the most part, any employee can have or develop the “right stuff” and move up the organization ladder – if the “right stuff” is used right.

Many studies have been done over the years trying to identify the characteristics that separate very high performers – those with the “right stuff” – from lesser achievers. Consider the findings from these three, well- respected sources:

From The Five Patterns of Extraordinary Careers,  by James Citrin and Richard Smith,  senior  consultants for the highly regarded executive recruiting firm,  Spencer Stuart: 

1) “Those with long, extraordinary careers know how value is created in the workplace and translate that knowledge into action; 

2) They practice benevolent leadership.  They give, then get, trust and loyalty, in that order;

3)  They find ways to overcome the “permission paradox” – getting the OK to take on assignments for which they might not be prepared….but succeeding, nevertheless; 

4) They ruthlessly allocate their time using the 80/20 principle (aka “Parato’s Law”)….applying most of their time and efforts (the 80%) to the relatively few (the 20%) projects or tasks from which they get the biggest bangs for their bucks and will make the most positive differences;

 5) They find the right fit for their particular strengths, passions, and people.”

From Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by consultant and writer Dr. Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell and Allied Signal: 

1) They know their business inside and out. They simply can’t be fooled; 

2) They insist on realism, openness, and no “puffing;” 

3) They set clear goals, priorities, and timelines for themselves and their reports;  

4)  They follow-through on deadlines and make sure they’re being met;

5) They reward doers,  often big time; 

6)  They are great teachers and mentors and help others to expand their capabilities;  and

7) They know their own strengths and play to them, then find and develop subordinates or staff who have complementary strengths.

From The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This book helped launch the highly successful writing, speaking, and consulting career of its author, Dr. Stephen Covey. 1)  Be proactive, taking responsibility for one’s actions. Keep commitments;  2)  Begin with the end in mind: what you are aiming for will determine what you aim with;  3) Put first things first, doing what will move you towards your goals and avoiding what detracts; 4) Think win-win.   Collaboration, partnering, consensus building; 5) Seek first to understand, then be understood.   Walk in the other person’s shoes. Empathy  6) Synergize. The 2 + 2 = 5 concept. Cooperation, collaboration, sharing;  7)  “Sharpen the saw.”   Periodically refresh and refuel oneself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

How do you stack up?

How do you rate yourself on these key points?   How does your boss rate you?  What about a trusted co-worker or your team?     Are there one or two factors you can begin working on right now?   Don’t wait to start.   Hesitating or delaying is not usually a characteristic of the high achiever.

Some people seem to be born with at least some the “right stuff” while others develop it over time in a variety of ways.    In the next issue we’ll look at practical means that almost anyone can use to acquire more of the “right stuff.”   Please hold on to this article.

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or80,   Anyone who keeps learning stays young.  The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young,”  (Henry Ford)


Charles Waldo, Ph.D., is Professor of Marketing (Ret.) in Anderson University’s Falls School of Business.    He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..