Becoming a high-performing professional

What are some of the common characteristics of top performers and what steps can you take to reach the pinnacle of your profession?
Iwona Tokc-Wilde finds out

In an increasingly fluid and complex business and work environment, high-performing employees are critical to the success of every organisation. In fact, according to a global study from The Corporate Executive Board (CEB), seven out of every eight bosses want us to improve our performance by as much as 20% in order to help them meet their business objectives.

Traditionally, high performers have always met or exceeded their targets and they have had strong business acumen and technical expertise. However, CEB says the new business and work environment demands that, to perform at the peak of their professions, today’s professionals must also be quick at learning, proactive problem solvers and decision makers, and they must know how to work collaboratively while being able to exert influence at the same time.

So, how do you become one of those top performers?

Like a football star

People do not become high performers by accident – they choose to become so when they accept 100% responsibility and accountability for their own success. In addition to cultivating the right attitude and taking initiative, they also work hard on developing and applying the right combination of skills, and are always practising so that they improve and, ultimately, prove they are the best. In this, top-performing accountants are a bit like top-performing footballers.

‘Just as Cristiano Ronaldo practises free-kicks, accountants need to keep up to date with changes in legislation and accounting standards to remain on top of their game,’ says Jamie Morrison, recently appointed partner at HW Fisher & Company.

‘The current Tiki-Taka generation of Barcelona players react quickly to a situation – that’s how responsive top advisers should be in meeting their clients’ needs.’

The most successful of footballers are role models, too. ‘Just look at Lionel Messi or David Beckham,’ says Morrison. ‘In just the same way, top accountants should be positive role models for the aspiring accountants that follow.’

Set yourself apart

There are other traits that set top-performing accountants apart from their average, well-performing peers.

‘Technical expertise is at the heart of what we do and the solid foundation upon which to become a good accountant,’ says Morrison. ‘However, while you may only need to know 50% of the training syllabus to pass your exams, you need to know 100% (and more!) to be a top-level adviser.’

Your deep technical expertise must be complemented by good general knowledge of all aspects of business and finance too, adds Dr Steve Priddy, director of research at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF): ‘This means a complete grasp of accounting standards and their implementation, and a profound understanding of the intricacies of business models.’ 

Top performers know there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. People who are happiest sitting at a desk will not make their mark in the wider business world, says Paul Merison, director of ACCA at LSBF.

‘Those who excel are those who demand to be involved in meetings and in decision making,’ says Merison. ‘They volunteer solutions while maintaining their integrity by sticking to their principles and to their guns rather than allowing their opinions to be bulldozed by ambitious executives with an agenda of their own.’

You cannot afford to be perceived as aloof and lacking in social skills, adds Morrison: ‘Our business is all about relationships and, for people who aspire to senior roles, this is often the differentiating factor between those who make it and those who don’t.”’

The best of the best innovate and take risks. Paul Merison is a recent winner of the PQ Tutor of the Year. ‘I won the award because, despite teaching mostly the same subjects for 17 years, I don’t always read from the same old script,’ he says. ‘I aim to re-invent 10% of what I do each time – looking for new examples, better explanations and better practical question-solving techniques – and take some risks to see what works best.’

Path to the top

Most people agree the only sure way to reach the pinnacle of the profession leads along the path of continuous improvement.

‘The world of professional services demands that people keep their edge and improve all the time,’ says Susannah Anfield, head of development at PwC. But first, she says, it helps if you know yourself: when are you at your best, what excites and motivates you, what are you good at and what do you want to be known for?

All of this is underpinned by a thirst for learning, including learning from others who got to the top already, says Anfield.

‘Ask how they did it – talk to those a little way above you and to those a long way above you, and find a mentor who can challenge and support you,’ she says. ‘But do take time out to think and reflect about the impact you’re making, what is working and what your weaker areas are – always ask for feedback and always do something with it.’

As for refining those crucial skills on your path to becoming a top performer, Anfield singles out the ability to build relationships and sticking with them over the years, as well as being able to develop ideas – both your own and those of others.

‘There is no substitute for experience and no short cut to gaining it,’ adds Morrison. ‘Trainees and newly-qualified accountants should take each case as a learning opportunity and never be frightened to question the status quo or suggest new ideas or approaches.’

Testing performance

How do you know if you are on the right path to top performance? That’s easy – at most organisations what you accomplish is tracked through a performance management process involving feedback on individual assignments, as well as annual appraisals, so your manager or boss will apprise you of your progress.

At PwC, high performers are identified through their potential and performance rating, too. ‘The potential rating of "A" goes to people who show the highest potential to fulfil more complex roles, at least two levels higher than their current level,’ says Anfield.

‘Individuals are also given a performance rating of 1 to 4, with around 10% being awarded the highest rating of 1, so a sign of outstanding performance will be a combination of high performance rating and a high potential rating.’

If you veer off your path and need a helping hand to get back on it, there is usually focused support available.

‘Some people need high support as they learn and become strong at delivering in their role; others are ready for more stretch, challenge and ambiguity,’ says Sacha Romanovitch, partner and member of the National Leadership Board at Grant Thornton.

‘The 70:20:10 approach we use (where 70% of learning comes from on-the-job experience, 20% from self-directed learning, including coaching and further reading, and 10% from formal workshops) gives people many opportunities to grow and stretch every day.’

Finally, you will know if you are a top performer as top performers get rewarded as such, although not necessarily just with money.

‘We know they need more than monetary reward – we engage our talent in the future direction of our business and our talent development programmes are about developing their whole selves to be successful in tomorrow's world,’ says Romanovitch. High performers are also normally promoted ahead of their peers.

"There is no substitute for experience and no short cut to gaining it. Trainees and newly-qualified accountants should take each case as a learning opportunity and never be frightened to question the status quo or suggest new ideas or approaches."

Jamie Morrison - HW Fisher & Company