High performance knowledge workers: explaining and replicating success

published on 31 May 2021
Sprinting at work: a formula for outperformance
Sprinting at work: a formula for outperformance

Consider the following …

Two knowledge workers bill clients for their time. They join a new company in the same month, in the same team, with the same levels of experience.

One worker improves, gradually, incrementally and consistently. The other doesn’t.

Three years later the higher performer is billing almost 50% more time per day than his average performing peer

An average performer (avg billable hrs/day) over 3 years
An average performer (avg billable hrs/day) over 3 years

The above is taken from real performance data at a successful advisory firm in the UK. But this is not a unique scenario, indeed it is one that plays itself out the world over. So we decided to spend some more time looking into it. Specifically, we asked ourselves:

What do star performing knowledge workers do better and more often than everyone else?

We have developed answers to this question by:

1) Looking at the highest performing knowledge professionals we have worked with, analysing their performance data and behavioural patterns.

2) Assimilating and cross referencing these traits and habits with the more widely recognised indicators of high performance from either scientific literature or industry findings.

This work has resulted in 6 distinct dimensions where we see the highest performer over-indexing versus their peers. Since these dimensions emerge from studying how top performers outpace their peers, we summarise them using the acronym SPRINT. They are:

Self reviewing
Planning and prioritising
Relentlessly executing
Information harvesting
Network building
Thinking in systems

The Dimensions (in summary)

Strategic self reviewing

Top performers put in place processes to gather more (and more reliable) information about their own performance.

Planning and prioritising

Top performers implement more consistent processes to plan ahead and identify and reduce top priorities.

Relentlessly executing

Top performers set more store by following through and getting things done.

Information harvesting

Top performers create systems for staying up to date and in turn keeping others informed.

Network building

Top performers proactively look for diverse networks to be part of as well as ways to bridge otherwise unconnected networks.

Tooling up and thinking in systems

Top performers don’t rely on brute force or individual genius: they build systems, they leverage the right tools for the job, and they make the most of work and progress made by others.

Here is a summary of our findings each dimension. We expand on each elsewhere.

The Dimensions (in slightly more detail)

Strategic Self Awareness/ review

Top performers put in place processes to gather more (and more reliable) information about their performance.

Without a system in place to get reliable information about one’s own performance, self improvement efforts are clearly not sitting on a stable foundation. Footnote : the dangerous flip side of self-unawareness was famously described this paper from 1999, giving rise to the now well known “Dunning Kruger Effect” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10626367]

The term Strategic Self Awareness ( a favourite of pre-eminent personality and workplace performance expert Dr Robert Hogan) can be broken down into (1) understanding your own strengths and weaknesses (diagnosis); and (2) and understanding how they compare with those of others (benchmarking).

It is important to note that self awareness is unlikely to come from introspection alone. This is the distinction made by the term “strategic” self awareness. As Dr Hogan explains:

strategic self-awareness cannot be gained in vacuo or through introspection it must instead come from multiple peer feedback mechanisms.

And finally:

Feedback should be framed in terms of three categories as follows: Keep doing — continue doing whatever a person is doing correctly; Stop doing — eliminate troublesome or counterproductive performance characteristics ;Start doing — acquire new behaviors that will enhance their performance.

For a summary see here, https://www.hoganassessments.com/strategic-self-awareness/

Plan and prioritise

Top performers implement more consistent processes to plan ahead and identify top priorities.

The importance of planning and prioritising is already well understood and acknowledged.

The respective merits of the many different personal and firm wide planning methodologies are the subject of a separate article.

Where we see the highest performers differentiate themselves is in:

  1. The extent to which they are more ruthless in shrinking down their number of priorities
  2. The consistency and discipline with which they implement a planning process

Both of these factors emerge for the creation of a process or system which fits the cadence of their work life and delivery cycles. Related to this, we note that the most effective planners are good at matching level of detail to time horizon: a simple, clear vision at the longer term, a detailed implementation plan at the near term.

And no discussion of prioritisation would be complete without the a reference to the master of focus:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully”

Relentlessly execute

Top performers set more store by following through and getting things done.

Micheal Siebel (partner of YCombinator, analyst of tens of thousands of data points on high achieving professionals) finds the single most predictive trait shared by top level performers is their relentless commitment to execution.

Finding a way to overcome obstacles and pushing on unflinchingly until the job in hand is done is clearly, by definition, central to achieving results.

However it is also critical to the other much considered areas of performance and leadership science, namely the art of influence and persuasion.

By consistently doing what they say they will, these people assume a credibility, even an aura of “formidability” (argues Siebel) which persuades others to join and help them on achieve their goals:


Inform and Information harvest

Top performers create systems for staying up to date and in turn keeping others informed

In 1995 Bob Kelly of Carnegie Mellon University undertook the now frequently referenced Bell Stars study. The aim of the study was to investigate what separated their star performers from their average performers.

Their key finding was that star performers were more energetic in creating information sharing channels with a diverse set of people, and engaged in what Kelly called “preparatory exploration”; that is developing dependable information sharing channels with experts ahead of time — relationships which would later help the star complete critical tasks.

Alex Pentland, in his seminal book “Social Physics” reaches a similar conclusion; “individuals…..who create more interactive conversations end up being more important to idea flow….the most productive people in the world are continually engaging with others in order to harvest new ideas”.

Network build (thoughtfully)

Top performers proactively look for diverse networks to be part of as well as ways to bridge otherwise unconnected networks.

The aphorism “Your network is your net worth” correctly indicates the importance of your network as a predictor of your success. However it only conveys half the truth and if left unpacked, the phrase can be a dangerous red herring.

Consider the words of Ronald Burt, one of the world’s most respected network scientists:

Traditionally, self-help books on networks focus on going out and building big mammoth rolodexes…What we’ve found is that this isn’t what high-performers do. What seems to distinguish the top 20% of performers across a wide-range of organizations is not so much a big network. In fact, there is usually a negative statistically significant likelihood of being a top performer and knowing a lot of people.

It is not network size in general that predicts success, but instead the adoption of a particular role in a particular type of network. Not all networks are created equal, and here there is a critical distinction between “open” and “closed” networks:

An open network is a network where you are connected to different clusters of people who don’t know each other. A closed network where you are connected to people who tend to know each other.

And, according to Burt’s work, as much as half of our predicted career success can be predicted by our ability to develop and inhabit open networks.

Specifically, being able to fill the “structural holes” between these open networks, and be a broker between them, is where the magic happens.

We will cover practical applications of this crucial point, and concrete steps on increasing your brokerage role in open networks, but the benefits of doing this are significant and now well documented, including the ability to pull information from diverse clusters (boosting innovation and creativity), a timing advantage being the first to introduce information to another cluster, and communication skills advantage, ie the ability to translate one’s groups knowledge into another group’s commercially beneficial insight.

Tool up and think in systems:

Top performers don’t rely on brute force or individual genius: they build systems, and they leverage work and progress made by others

Perhaps the greatest area of self examination currently in the knowledge industry relates to the exploding field of productivity and collaboration technology.

Here we consider the overarching principles that sets the top performer apart from the rest. We find that:

  1. Top performers tend not to be distracted by the latest technology for its own sake, but instead consistently look for the right tool for the job in hand. Before embarking on a task or project, they ask “has this problem been solved before?” and “is there a power tool which will significantly scale my efforts?”
  2. More important than the latest technology is the deployment of systems and systematic thinking. Top performers tend to be highly skilled at pattern recognition, and build a habit of asking themselves “have i seen this situation before? What frameworks or systems of thinking will breakdown this problem more quickly?” They are looking, in other words, for how they can leverage thinking and work already done, and how they can deploy systems, however simple, to radically improve their efficiency.

This ability to think in systems we consider to be on a par with strategic self review as foundation to long term out-performance. On project management, in drafting, in reviewing, the deployment of a consistent and considered system is critical to ongoing high performance.

And in sales/ business development, it is unbeatable. More than charisma, charm, and the ability to persuade others, the worker who implements a consistent and compounding approach to finding and closing deals, outperforms all others over time.

The astonishing power of simple systems, consistently executed, has long been broadcast as the engine behind many of the world’s most successful people, including Ray Dalio, Warren Buffet, John Henry. And the great legal rainmakers in the city today may not be the most gifted technical workers, or even the most outwardly charismatic leaders, but will be those executing a simple, repeatable, and relentless system for finding and closing deals.


We set out to consider the developing knowledge workers’s question: “what can I do more of on a daily or weekly basis to accelerate my performance improvement and secure my career prospects?”.

We suggest that the six steps proposed cover a lot of ground in providing a high level tactical framework for out-performance. When studying the highest performance professionals we note that they really do appear to sprint head of their peers and that much of that outpacing can be explained by the frequency and discipline with which they:

Self review
Plan and prioritise
Relentlessly execute
Information harvest
Network build
Think in systems

These dimensions are not intended to be descriptive of a level of performance that others can not reach, but instead instructive and implementable steps that anyone can take, on a weekly basis, to start nudging their KPIs higher.

For any knowledge worker with one eye on serving their clients today, and another on future proofing themselves in a fast changing environment, we encourage them to pause and consider implementing processes today to help them SPRINT at work.