What you need to know about leading and mentoring high achievers

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“I really don’t know if I have anything to teach Colin. He’s one of the most capable people I’ve ever met,” Lisa told me. She was vice president of marketing and a mentor in a talent development program I ran for a large multinational.

Two months into the mentoring experience, Lisa quickly realized that the approaches she had used with previous mentees would not be enough to further develop Colin. Her first clue was in his application for the company’s program. Colin noted that he wanted to become a mentor because he was “hungry for new insights and opportunities for growth.”

Comments from his managers indicated that he was widely viewed as a future C-suite executive and had a track record of success in all positions since joining the company five years ago. Each of the managers felt challenged to push the limits of Colin’s abilities, something they never quite seemed to achieve despite entrusting him with complex projects.

It was obvious to Lisa that Colin was an achiever. Managing him well would require its own rules.

In her book “The success factor, developing the mindset and skills for top business performance” Author Ruth Gotian, studied achievers in a variety of fields, including Olympians to Nobel Prize winners to Basketball Hall of Famers. She finds that high achievers are passionate about their work and loyal to organizations that recognize and value their contributions.

It is worth investing in their development because research shows that high achievers (“role models,” as Gotian calls them) are 400% more productive than the average worker. To create an environment in which they thrive, you need to know a lot about these incredibly capable employees.

Here are five key factors from Gotian’s research to keep in mind when managing or mentoring a high performer:

1. They are intrinsically motivated to pursue their passions

High performers are not only interested in success in general, they also want to be successful in their learned profession. While they possess many talents and skills that allow them to excel at almost any task that comes their way, what drives them most is what drives them every day. Therefore, leading or mentoring role models requires doing some due diligence work beforehand.

Start with:

  • Take the time to understand your mentee’s passions. What brings them fulfillment? What arouses your curiosity? What would they do even if they weren’t paid to do it?
  • Align development goals with these passions. Help them understand how pursuing specific goals will be an outlet for those passions, rather than becoming just another box on a long list of achievements.
  • Broaden their perspective on specific tasks that don’t align with their passions. This is especially important if these tasks encourage the development of skills needed for future desired roles.

2. You accept the challenge

Top performers usually achieve extreme success because they are courageous and persistent. They are willing to strive for goals that no one has reached before and find joy in the journey. Be prepared to design stretch tasks for them.

But don’t be surprised if they push boundaries beyond what you imagined and challenge current thinking. High achievers are more afraid of not trying than of failing. Therefore, supporting them when they take on risky challenges will foster their enthusiasm for the work and the role.

3. They are lifelong learners

Despite reaching a level of success that surpasses most others, high achievers are hungry for new understanding and knowledge. They value opportunities to interact with people who are more knowledgeable than they are. And despite what you might think, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. Instead, they thrive best when exposed to people from whom they can learn.

If you want to retain high achievers, make sure you hire a lot more of them to create a learning environment. Even exemplary performers have to find their tribe.

4. You are driven to pay it up front

High performers actively mentor others and relish the opportunity to interact with individuals who share the same level of deep curiosity and love of learning. Most importantly, they understand that their own success has not been achieved in a vacuum and seek to become positive role models for others.

Connect your current top performers to the next generation of employees joining your company and they will help you identify your future top talent.

5. You need a team for personal growth

While high achievers enjoy mentoring others to support the next generation, they also value personal mentoring to continue their own development. However, high performers are more likely to seek a team of mentors, individuals with specific areas of interest and expertise from whom they can learn and grow.

If you guide or mentor a high achiever, help them identify their specific goals and connect them with other mentors who can be part of the team supporting their greatness.

To lead an achiever and do well, start by examining yourself:

  • Is there something you’re passionate about that gets you out of bed in the morning?
  • You like to learn and are inspired by what you do?
  • Do you start the workday with a sense of excitement and opportunity?

When you model the behaviors that high performers value, you create a powerful force for organizational success.


Alaina Love is CEO of Purposeful Advice and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Successful Teams and Great Outcomes” (McGraw-Hill). She’s a recovering HR leader, global speaker and leadership expert with a passion for everything that involves, well… passion. Her passionate archetypes are Builders, Transformers, and Healers. You can learn more about how to develop leaders, build passionate teams, and use passion to drive great customer outcomes here.

When not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss, which explores the alignment of personality, purpose, and passion and Science studies how it contributes to our well-being. Follow the love on Twitter, Facebook, youtube or you to blog.

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