Scaling peak performance by climbing mountains

Identifying potential leaders and feeding their appetite for success with demanding challenges is instrumental in developing careers, writes Iwona Tokc-Wilde

In a less stable global economy, recruitment and development of high-performing employees are critical to the bottom-line success of every organisation. In fact, according to research by CEB, on average global executives believe they need a 20 per cent improvement in performance over and above current levels in order to meet their business objectives.

Achieving such a jump in workforce productivity in an increasingly fluid and complex business, and the work environment requires a new breed of high-performing employees. Strong business acumen, technical expertise and meeting targets – the traditional traits of high performance – are no longer enough. The new high-performer can also adapt to change, works collaboratively and applies judgment, says CEB.

Sacha Romanovitch, partner and member of the National Leadership Board at Grant Thornton, believes adaptability goes hand in hand with being proactive and seeking every opportunity to make a difference beyond your role. “This comes through early on in an attitude of mind and is a great indicator of ability to take on roles of broader scale and complexity as a career develops,” she says.

Early identification of potential talent is crucial. Like many others, internet hosting company UKFast use psychometric testing in their recruitment process to find individuals whose values match the company’s own. Then, the new recruits climb Mount Snowdon. “It’s during those tough situations that managerial material is identified,” says Lawrence Jones, UKFast’s chief executive.

PwC use a combined qualitative and quantitative approach when assessing potential. “We look at intellectual agility, capacity to develop, personal insight and influence, drive, resilience and leadership, and give the most promising the highest potential rating of A,” says Susannah Anfield, head of development at PwC. “Individuals will also be given a performance rating of one to four, with around 10 per cent being awarded the highest rating,” she adds. Therefore, an early sign of outstanding performance is a combination of high-potential and high-performance ratings.

Later on, larger organisations track and review the progress of high-performers through “talent review” meetings and “development centres”. “Everyone on our ‘Talent Programme’ is also assigned a dedicated mentor to help them develop within the business,” says Nikki Craig, head of HR and talent at DHL. In academia, high-performing teaching staff show evidence of grant income, publication record and exceptional teaching quality. “We benchmark performance against that of our competitors, expecting that it’s within the upper quartile of Russell Group universities,” says Andrew Dodman, director of HR at the University of Sheffield.

DHL have filled 70 per cent of their management and leadership roles with internal candidates over the past 12 months, a testimony to the fact that internal leadership development programmes reserved for the highest-potential, top performers really work.

Some companies now run programmes aimed specifically at women. “Our regional president Alex Wilmot-Sitwell has set a 30 per cent improvement goal over three years for the representation of women at senior levels,” says Michelle Fullerton, head of diversity and inclusion, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Upon completion, participants in our ‘Senior Women’s Sponsorship Programme’ are introduced to the bank’s wider leadership and development curriculum,” she says.

New recruits climb Mount Snowdon… it’s during those tough situations that managerial material is identified

To keep on a stratospheric growth path, high-performers need to operate in a high-performance work environment. Ms Romanovitch explains: “Line managers must create a space that enables people to seize opportunities, encourages them to think critically and to challenge the status quo.” They and their ideas need nurturing. “Our highest academic performers get to determine their own research and teaching interests and, should their output be fruitful, we show a commitment to developing promising new ideas,” says Mr Dodman.

Top performers need to be given access to high-profile projects. “At DHL, the resulting exposure can heighten their profile on a regional and global level,” says Ms Craig.

Promotion and monetary rewards also help. “Our higher performers will receive bigger bonuses; we also expect them to progress through the salary bands more quickly and be ready for promotion ahead of their peers,” says Ms Anfield.

At family-owned Pimlico Plumbers, featured on TV in Channel 4’s Show Me Your Money, high-performing engineers earn more. “They get allocated higher quality jobs and a cash bonus for any positive online customer recommendation,” says Dominic Ceraldi, Pimlico Plumbers’ head of HR. “They also get newer, higher-specification vehicles, with our renowned private number plates,” he adds.

Personal recognition from the bosses also matters. “Every Monday morning, our managing director gives a presentation to the entire company about people’s successes from the previous week,” says UKFast’s Mr Jones, who has taken high-performing employees on skiing trips to Verbier. “Next year, I’ll take the highest-performing technical employees to Las Vegas,” he says.

Mr Jones also believes that, for his employees to work at a high level, he must look after their physical and mental wellbeing. “We’re putting in an on-site gym, a steam room and relaxation zones,” he adds.

Of course, this will benefit the whole team at UKFast, which begs the question, is a team-based approach more rewarding in the long run? Gerry Miles, an associate at Ashridge Business School, comments: “Organisations need both high-performers and high-performing teams – ultimately, high-performing teams are only as good as their high-performing members. On the other hand, leaders can only ever be as good as the people they lead.”

Both must be nurtured, promoted and rewarded, which is what happens at engineering and design consultancy Arup. Arup is, like John Lewis, an employee-owned business where every employee receives a share of the company’s operating profits each year.

“This ownership structure encourages and rewards teamwork, but we also nurture and reward the talent of individuals,” says Roger Care, group board director at Arup. “For example, our ‘Early Development Programme’ gives staff at an early stage of their careers the opportunity to work internationally,” he says.

Whole teams at Arup get to work internationally, too. “Recently, we flew eight volunteers out to Rwanda to help build the first rapid-design pedestrian suspension bridge using our new software – every one of them found this incredibly rewarding, both on a personal and professional level,” says Mr Care.

Finally, top performers prevent their mid-performing colleagues from realising their full potential when they do not provide assistance or information that might help others follow in their footsteps. “Bad or damaging behaviour can be overlooked if the individual is high performing,” says Barney Ely, director at Hays Human Resources.

Many organisations have “sunflowers” who soak up attention and lobby for praise, but block their colleagues from getting the credit they deserve. They require careful handling, as Mr Miles explains: “If an organisation decides to continue investing in them, they have to be told to step up to the mark and help others flourish. At the same time, they need reassuring their efforts are appreciated.”

It would be interesting to know how many of these “sunflowers” are Millennial or Generation Y graduates, born around 1982 and later. “Our research into what UK graduates want from their managers confirms the number-one requirement is to be shown respect and that they are valued,” says Mr Miles.