Cloning High Performers

The best staff members have goals, a sense of direction, and learn from their mistakes

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We know them when we see them. Maybe, you have one in your lab. If you're lucky, you have more than one. They are your high performers who do whatever needs to be done. Among your most productive employees, they inspire and lead. Attracting and retaining high performers is good business. Cloning them in your lab is even better.

Who are the High Performers?
High performers are easy to spot. They continually deliver above average performance. Nordic Headhunting describes a high performer as "often characterized as being motivated for the job and possess professional pride, determination and integrity."1 High performers have goals, a sense of direction, and learn from their mistakes.

According to Monster.com, high performers may be ten times more productive than average performers. An article in the online Houston Chronicle points out they "also may generate many of a company's new ideas because they tend to look for ways to improve procedures to maximize their own productivity."2 This also makes them excellent teachers and mentors, able to help the average employee who needs a nudge once in a while.

High performance means more than traditional productivity e.g. billable tests per hour worked. This simple metric is understandable to bean counters but doesn't capture the complex mosaic of laboratory service: quality control, maintenance, troubleshooting, Stat turnaround response, outpatient services, and telephone calls.

A bench technologist at a chemistry analyzer, for example, may have a high productivity on paper, but it is the high performer fielding problems, smoothing out issues with doctors, troubleshooting quality problems, etc. who enables his or her coworker to be such a strong team member. Thus, high performers may not stand out using traditional metrics.

What is High Performance?
Here are characteristics of high performers to look for, according to marketing expert and author Jerry Shaw:3

  • Autonomy -- high performers manage their time, complete their work on time, and plan ahead without a need for close supervision.
  • Seek input -- high performers want to know how they are doing, so they ask for feedback and use it to improve. They have frequent contact with supervisors and others in the organization to stay connected.
  • Initiative -- high performers are motivated, self-directed, and likely to spend more time researching topics on their own, looking for new assignments, or trying something different.
  • Networking -- high performers often have larger networks than colleagues with more contacts within and outside the organization.
  • Open Mind -- high performers will compromise and remain open-minded to possibilities under pressure. This makes them excellent problem solvers.

Performance is not overachievement. Your lab's overachievers may appear to be high performers because they get things done, but they do so whatever the cost. High performers look for ways to transform the workplace. As summarized by Les McKeown for the website Inc., they "deliver results while building up the business, not weakening it."4

High Performers Vs. High Potentials
It would be great if your entire lab was filled with high performers. While this won't happen in the best of labs, you can recognize and mentor employees with high potential, those most likely to become high performers. High potential employees have more talent, drive, and ambition than average. Almost all companies identify and focus on these individuals to lead their organization.5

High potential employees can be late- or early-stage. Examples include an experienced bench supervisor ready to be promoted into management or a new technologist with a lot of talent but not much experience. Both are equally important to recognize and can be successfully mentored. Common attributes to look for include: has the respect of others, technically competent, consistently produces results above expectations, self-manages, thinks and solves problem creatively, actively leads and manages teams.6

While high potentials and high performers are similar, the difference is crucial. A manager can often assume a high performer is suited for a leadership role, because he or she is good at self-management and getting tasks done on time. But they may not have the potential to succeed at a higher level. Promoting a high performance employee with low potential can be disastrous.

Guidelines for developing high potential employees are listed in the Table, as suggested by talent acquisition analyst Kyle Lagunas. As the Table illustrates, your high performers benefit from autonomy: they can be given projects with full ownership and be expected to complete them. This tends to focus attention on results and performance, which can leave out your high potential low performers, who need to have their talent recognized to be able to grow and succeed in your laboratory.

It would be even better if your lab was filled with high performers with high potential, but that won't happen either. Some of your high performers thrive staying put. Most of your high potential employees, however, can move into more demanding roles. Here are tips to clone high potentials into high performance: 

  • Greater responsibility -- testing talent with projects that have a degree of autonomy is a good first step. For example, a high potential employee who shows an interest in microbiology could be asked to revise a culture protocol.
  • Increase connections -- a high potential employee tends to think of issues outside the scope of your laboratory; these employees are excellent candidates for hospital committees, rounding teams, and other opportunities to increase an understanding of the big picture.
  • Mentor -- ideally, a high performer should mentor a high potential to model and monitor performance. Management recognition and support are equally important.

Table: Development Strategies for Employees

High Performance
  • Keep them where they are, or promote
  • Constant encouragement
  • Challenging assignments
  • Soft skill development
  • Keep them where they are, or promote
  • Provide autonomy
Low Performance
  • Performance plan
  • Termination
  • Pair with a High Performer
  • New role better aligned with skills
  • Training
  • Test with more responsibilities
Low Potential High Potential

Your high performers single themselves out. Deliberately singling out high potentials can cause resentment with coworkers, especially if traditional productivity metrics are emphasized. Not recognizing a high potential ensures that he or she will look elsewhere and, perhaps, eventually quit.

Creating a program to recognize and develop those employees with potential into high performers makes good business sense and elevates the performance of everyone on your team. It's also a great way to provide better patient care.

Scott Warner is laboratory manager, Penobscot Valley Hospital, Lincoln, Maine.


  1. Nordicheadhunting.dk. High Performers. Available at: www.nordicheadhunting.dk/high-performers2. Last accessed May 27, 2014.
  2. Burks F. What Distinguishes a High-Performing Employee From an Average Performer? Available at: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/distinguishes-highperforming-employee-average-performer-39432.html. Last accessed May 27, 2014.
  3. Shaw J. Characteristics of a High Performance Employee. Available at: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/characteristics-high-performance-employee-41338.html. Last accessed June 7, 2014.
  4. McKeown L. Are You a High-Performer--or Just an Overachiever? Available at: http://www.inc.com/les-mckeown/are-you-a-high-performer-or-just-an-overchiever.html. Lat accessed June 7, 2014.
  5. Ready D, Conger J, Hill L. Are You a High Potential?.Available at: http://hbr.org/2010/06/are-you-a-high-potential/ar/1. Last accessed June 7, 2014.
  6. Snipes J. Identifying and Cultivating High-Potential Employees. Available at: http://www.clomedia.com/articles/identifying_and_cultivating_high_potential_employees. Last accessed June 7, 2014.

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