- What an outlier employee is.
- Why outliers are important to your business’ success.
- How to identify outliers within an organization.
- How to determine what makes them special.
- How to systematize their processes to pass along to other workers.
What Are Outliers?
In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell set out to explain why certain people achieve unusual or extraordinary amounts of success. The book is probably most famous for its concept of 10,000 hours–the amount of time a person needs to dedicate to a task to become a master of it.
Through examples like The Beatles, Wayne Gretzky, and Bill Gates, he posits that certain people are more successful than others through a combination of hard work and being in the right place at the right time.
Gladwell’s book talks at length about how high performing people came to be at the top of their chosen fields, but it does little to explain how we actually identify outliers.
Whether you’re the owner of a business or a shift supervisor, learning how to identify high performers in the workplace is a key responsibility for any manager.
Whether you’re a business owner or a shift supervisor, learning how to identify high performers in the workplace is a key responsibility for any manager.
High performing employees can be the difference between success and mediocrity. Sometimes, they are the owners, and sometimes, they are employees. Either way, it’s vital to understand them.
But how do you recognize which workers outperform their compatriots, and how do you use that knowledge?
A Tale Of Two Org Charts
There’s a process for identifying a high-performance employee.
The first thing you do is create a current organization chart. How is the business structured right now, on the day you walk through the front doors?
After you’ve announced yourself as the company's new owner, you should begin to schedule one-on-one meetings with each of the managers. Ask them who reports to whom and what each person’s position entails.
Once you’ve been interviewing these people for a while, you’ll notice two org charts emerging: the first shows you who reports to whom; the second will show the real communication flow that exists.
The more unoptimized the company, the bigger the difference between these two charts.
For example, the CEO of a company should not be determining what someone two or three levels below them on the org chart should be doing on a day-to-day basis. Whether or not they’re communicating with that person directly or whether they’re just the decision-maker for what that person does, it shouldn’t be their responsibility.
After all, that’s why organizational structures exist: they define the structure of relationships so that everyone can efficiently work together toward an end goal. If the CEO is worried about the day-to-day of someone below them, they can’t worry about big picture ideas.
Make sure to ask these managers which employees they believe are the best performers.
These organization charts are great at identifying which roles are important and who within the organization is doing a job that multiple people should handle. You’ll also find when you interview these managers that there are certain people who don’t match the rest of the org chart in terms of the amount of work they do.
How To Identify Top Performers
We'd like to share the story of an HVAC company we participated in acquiring that serves a large metro region in the Northeastern United States. We'll keep the company's name and the individuals involved anonymous to ensure their privacy. When we acquired the company, we started interviewing the company’s owners and managers to develop an organizational chart. It quickly became apparent that there were a few standout employees.
One employee – we'll call him James – was originally from Lithuania. When he arrived in the United States in 2004, he spoke no English. The company’s owner took James under his wing and showed him the ropes. Now, James is one of the top performers at the company.
In the company’s org chart, there is a project manager in charge of the foremen. Each foreman has a team that they oversee. James is a project manager and foreman combined into one role.
His projects have better metrics than most other projects, even those with a dedicated foreman and project manager. In other words, James costs half as much and he performs better.
James is the perfect example of an outlier.
Another person who stood out on the HVAC company’s org chart was a person we would call Steve. Steve is a project manager who filled a completely unique role within the company. He’s responsible for more revenue created than anyone else within the company–partially because of his unique role and partially because of a happy mistake that the company made.
That happy mistake was getting term contracts with the World Bank.
Normally, this company is a subcontractor that does mechanical and plumbing work for large construction projects. However, the World Bank prefers a general contractor that is signed to a two-year renewable contract. The contractor handles all of the plumbing as long as the price is under $25,000, and they get the opportunity to bid on any jobs that are over $25,000.
The company has had this contract for eight years and Steve oversees the job as the project manager. He treads the grounds of the World Bank, looking for any plumbing issues and offering to fix them. If a water fountain isn’t pumping out the good stuff with enough pressure, Steve is the one who notices and proposes fixing it. He creates work constantly.
The issue is that this company has been so busy that they couldn’t replicate this contract. If the company had five Steve’s on service contracts, they could generate a near-infinite supply of work and recurring revenue.
Steve is another example of an outlier.
The first question you must ask yourself is, for each position on the org chart, what's the metric for success? That metric may be one thing like revenue or you may have multiple metrics (revenue, speed, and customer feedback, for example).
Once you’ve defined your metrics, you need to look at the organization's stars and figure out how to get everyone else up to their level. Meanwhile, try and figure out ways to nurture these top performers, give them more responsibilities, and reward them. You want these people to feel valued. You want to energize their lives.
- Create more revenue than their peers.
- Are usually busier than other workers.
- Are looked to as a leader by their coworkers.
- Complete jobs more quickly at a higher quality of work.
Start Your Investigation
When you find high performers like these, you must determine if you can replicate their successes. What is it about these people that create their success?
Schedule one-on-one meetings with any outliers you identify. You need to determine how you can gather the outlier’s skills and turn them into a system to be distributed to other workers. How can you get everyone else to model James and Steve?
(You should also consider giving these outliers more responsibilities within the company.)
The process of systematizing skills is a lot like an investigation. This is especially true if you’re unfamiliar with the business and its workings. (And if that’s the case, you should begin by downloading the brain of the previous owner.)
For someone like James, you might ask yourself, “why can he be both a foreman and a project manager?” To understand that, first, you need to understand how the other project managers work and how the other foremen work. Based on that, you can start to see how James works.
The process is a lengthy one but it’s absolutely essential in any business where there’s depth to the organization. You need to find the best example within each role and model your systems after that example.
Likewise, you should find the worst examples and fire them. Maybe not in the first six months, but you should be constantly trimming the fat of any organization, and this process will help you identify these individuals.
These questions will be different for each person. But here are some examples of questions we used when interviewing James.
- Why don’t you need a project manager?
- How do you stay organized?
- How do you motivate your team?
- How many breaks do you take?
- What do you value about your work?
In the case of supervisors, you can spend a day shadowing them after the interview to see how they operate. Then, you can shadow one or two other supervisors to see what they do differently.
You will likely notice that many of these high performers will be fairly demanding in terms of quality and speed. The difference between an efficient organization and an inefficient one often comes down to a standard of speed.
Quality should always be top of mind, but the speed standard will determine how many jobs you can manage. Whereas some people may spend extra time getting materials or take extra coffee or smoke breaks, others will hustle at a high level for the entire day.
The person continually hustling is likely to be at least twice as effective as their counterparts, which is something we noticed in both outliers at this HVAC company.
Conclusion: Creating A System
Once you’ve identified what sets these outliers apart, you can begin turning those traits into a system.
How you share that system with your other workers depends largely on the industry. Some options are on-the-job training, mentorship programs, or other training activities. We discussed many of these options in our Uploading a Brain article.
Do you have a preferred method for training people? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below. Meanwhile, if you can think of anyone who would find this article useful, we would love it if you could share it with them.
If you’re just considering acquiring your own business, you should give our Accelerator a go. It’s a great way to see if business acquisitions are a good fit. If you’ve already completed the gauntlet and you’re trying to figure out your next steps, schedule a call with us today through the form below, and we can help you along your journey.
- Organizational charts will help you identify high performing employees.
- Interview management and ask them who the top performers are.
- Determine what these outliers do that is different from their peers.
- Shadow the outlier and their peers to get first-hand experience.
- Once you’ve identified what they do differently, turn that into a system or training sequence.
Acquira specializes in seamless business succession and acquisition. We guide entrepreneurs in acquiring businesses and investing in their growth and success. Our focus is on creating a lasting, positive impact for owners, employees, and the community through each transition.