What you need to know about leading and mentoring high achievers

“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 a marketing vice president who served as a mentor in a talent development program I was leading for a large multinational firm.

Two months into the mentoring experience, Lisa quickly realized that the approaches she had applied with past mentees wouldn’t be sufficient for developing Colin. Her first hint was in his application to the company’s program. Colin noted that he wanted to be mentored because he was “hungry for new insights and opportunities to grow.”

Comments from his managers indicated he was widely regarded as a future C-suite leader and had a track record of success in every role he’d been in since joining the company five years ago. Each of the managers felt challenged with finding the edges of Colin’s capability, which they never quite seemed to accomplish, despite assigning him to complex projects.

To Lisa, it was apparent that Colin was a high achiever. Leading him well would require its own set of rules.

In her book “The Success Factor, Developing the Mindset and Skillset for Peak Business Performance,” author Ruth Gotian, studied high achievers in a variety of fields, including Olympic athletes to Nobel winners to basketball hall-of-famers. She notes that high achievers are deeply passionate about their work and loyal to organizations that recognize and value their contributions.

Investing in their development is worth the effort because research shows that high achievers (“exemplars” as Gotian dubs them) are 400% more productive than the average employee. To create an environment where they flourish, there is plenty that you need to understand about these incredibly capable employees.

Here are five important factors from Gotian’s studies to keep top of mind if you’re leading or mentoring a high achiever:

1. They’re intrinsically motivated to pursue their passions

High achievers are not just interested in success in general, they want to achieve success in their chosen profession. While they have many talents and capabilities that allow them to excel at just about any assignment thrown their way, what they’re most passionate about is what drives them daily. Therefore, leading, or mentoring exemplars requires completing some due diligence work up front.

Begin by:

  • Taking time to understand your mentee’s passions. What brings them fulfillment? What ignites their curiosity? What would they do even if they weren’t paid for it?
  • Aligning development objectives with those passions. Help them understand how pursuing specific goals will provide an outlet for those passions, rather becoming another box checked on a long list of accomplishments.
  • Expanding their perspective on certain assignments that don’t align with their passions. This is especially important if those assignments will foster the skill development necessary for future desired roles.

2. They embrace challenge

For the most part, high achievers reach extreme levels of success because they are courageous and persistent. They are willing to attempt goals that no one has accomplished before and find joy in the journey. Be prepared to design stretch assignments for them.

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

3. They are lifelong learners

Despite having achieved levels of success beyond most others, high achievers are hungry for new understanding and knowledge. They value opportunities to interact with individuals who have more knowledge than they do. And, despite what you might think, don’t need 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, be sure to hire many more of them to nurture an environment for learning. Even exemplar performers need to find their tribe.

4. They are driven to pay it forward

High achievers actively mentor others and enjoy opportunities to interact with individuals who share their same level of deep curiosity and love of learning. Most importantly, they understand that their own success was not achieved in a vacuum and seek to become positive role models for others.

Connect your current high achievers with the next generation of employees entering your organization and they’ll help you identify your future top talent.

5. They need a personal growth team

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

If you are leading or mentoring a high achiever, help them identify their specific goals and connect them with other mentors who can be part of the team that supports their greatness.

To lead a high achiever and do it well, begin by examining yourself:

  • Do you have something about which you’re passionate, things that make you get out of bed in the morning?
  • Are you an avid learner and inspired by what you do?
  • Do you begin the workday with a sense of excitement and possibility?

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

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, March 2022.

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