How do the best performers get to the top? You know those types of employees: they seem to “get it” faster than their peers, regardless of what “it” is. They adapt readily to new demands and pick up skills quickly. Many theories have been advanced over the years about how such performers achieve their top status, but is there scientifically credible evidence to explain their unique learning behaviors and mindsets? If so, identifying these characteristics could help to create high-performance learning environments more consistently and broadly across an organization.
To find out about these learning traits, Accenture conducted a multi-dimensional research program, at the heart of which were surveys and interviews with two key portions of the employee population. One group was composed of employees who had received a performance rating in the past year that put them in the top 5 percent of the organization worldwide. We also surveyed a random sampling of 5,000 “typical” performers—individuals who in the past year were performing consistently, on pace with their peer groups and slated for career advancement, but who were not quite at the top 5 percent level. In addition to survey results, we also analyzed data from our learning management system: the numbers and types of courses employees had taken and how they interacted with our social learning infrastructure.
Seven characteristics of high-performance learning
The research identified seven high-performance learning traits.
A key characteristic of top performers is a high degree of autonomy in managing their time, completing their work and planning their learning experiences. We asked both the top performers and the typical performers in our survey population how much flexibility and personal responsibility they have to manage their time and schedule. One-third of top performers reported they have “a great deal” of flexibility, a situation experienced by only about 15 percent of the peer set. Twice as many typical performers were likely to report that they had no autonomy at all—that their supervisor monitored their location and hours closely.
When individuals have the autonomy to manage their time, their work and their approach to learning, they are able to do things in a way that is founded on their strengths and on their insights into the best way to get things done.
Active soliciting of input and feedback
A key point from our research is that top performers are more proactive about seeking regular input. They are more likely to solicit one-on-one feedback—not the obligatory “you did a good job” sort of comments but more detailed input—to get ongoing and timely temperature checks about their performance.
For example, top performers were significantly more likely than typical performers (72 percent to 52 percent) to solicit feedback in one-on-one meetings with their supervisor. They are also more attuned to broader spheres of influence and knowledge throughout the organization—23 percent of top performers identify new areas for development by asking other managers (in addition to their direct supervisor) for input, compared with only 13 percent of typical performers.
Top performers excel at keeping one eye on their current tasks and the other eye on the future. For example, in looking for a new assignment, 47 percent of top performers seek more responsibility and an opportunity to advance toward the next career level. By comparison, just 38 percent of typical performers said this was so. Top performers are also more likely to look for the chance to do something different, and they are equally likely to look for an opportunity to increase specialization.
Top performers maintain this focus on the future when planning their learning paths. They are three times as likely as typical performers to mention that they plan their learning around where they want to go next in their career.
Top performers are more likely to take an intentional, self-directed approach to planning the learning opportunities required to get to the top. About 80 percent of such performers agree that they know what they need to do in terms of using learning to support career development, compared with 69 percent of typical performers.
Formal training is one significant part of the overall picture of this intentional approach to learning. Top performers take approximately 40 percent more training hours than the employee average. But independent and informal learning is also a critical aspect of top performers’ success. For example, top performers are more likely than typical performers to do independent reading in their area of specialty.
Top performers do not see their skills as something to be developed and then used in a static way on different projects (the proverbial hammer in search of a nail). Instead, they see themselves as having a broad set of competencies, with specific skills to be developed and then applied in a faster, more agile fashion to meet the ongoing needs of the business.
For example, top performers are more than twice as likely as their peers to mention that they plan their learning experiences to be in alignment with their role, their work, the business, industry trends and the needs of their team. Top performers are also more likely to align their learning to their own interests. They respond to many simultaneous and changing priorities through their learning.
Linking learning and practical experience
Top performers are looking to stretch themselves with new roles and responsibilities—practical experiences that will, by nature of the work, increase their learning and speed their development. As one top performer put it, “I learn on the job by taking on challenges that help me grow.”
Top performers seek additional opportunities to practice new skills by assisting other teams on an ad hoc basis twice as frequently as typical performers. And, in looking for a new assignment, 47 percent of top performers are looking for more responsibility and an opportunity toward promotion, while just 38 percent of typical performers state this intention. Top performers look for the opportunity to do something different, and are likely to look for a chance to increase their specialization.
Top performers are great collaborators and networkers; they know how to reach out for information across the organization and how to contribute their experiences to the greater knowledge base of the company.
Top performers are more likely than typical performers to have larger networks that they can tap for advice and information, both inside and outside of the company. For example, 43 percent of top performers have more than 10 contacts they can call on; just 23 percent of their peers have a network that big.
Creating a high-performance learning environment
What do these findings mean for organizations and their enterprise learning teams? The research supports several important groupings of initiatives that can help create high-performance learning environments.
To a great extent, high-performance learning is an organizational, social phenomenon. As we have seen, top performers know how to leverage supervisors, career counselors, colleagues, subject-matter experts and others to proactively create learning experiences that are timely, relevant and practical. Organizations must work to create an active social learning environment.
Culture and communication
Timely feedback, proactively sought, is a key characteristic of high-performance learning, so organizations must support that with structures that encourage and enable better communication. In addition, a more transparent culture, one in which new roles and career opportunities are readily known by all, can improve the motivation to learn and generate higher levels of engagement.
Finally, the right technologies, infrastructure and applications must be in place to connect all people across the organization’s social ecosystem, and to make relevant content available in a timely way to help employees advance their own learning and career goals. The high-performance learning characteristics of active collaboration and balanced, aligned learning activities depend on an effective technology and systems environment.
Ultimately, the impetus for creating high-performance learning environments—and for hiring and developing high-performance learners—is to support the ongoing quest for competitive advantage. Top performers want to work for a company where people can effectively and easily connect, where all employees are equipped for success today and empowered to grow in the future. By providing such an environment, companies create a competitive advantage. Ultimately, high-performance learning is a formula for both personal and corporate success.
About the Authors
Don Vanthournout is Accenture’s director of talent development and chief learning officer.
Dan Bielenberg is director of strategy in Accenture’s Capability Development group.
Dana Alan Koch is a learning strategist in Accenture’s Capability Development group.
Sarah Kimmel is a learning research strategist in Accenture’s Capability Development group.