Thawing out the frozen middle


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May 12, 2023

Thawing out the frozen middle

We can help our high potentials become high achievers. There is an entire

We can help our high potentials become high achievers.

There is an entire segment of the workforce who wants to succeed, but doesn't really know how. We’ve identified them as high potentials, but are we giving them the resources they need to succeed? I call these people the frozen middle.

There are things we say and do that have us performing below full potential. In fact, subconsciously we might be steered toward aiming for average. Consider how often you hear the words benchmark, mean scores, class average and industry standards — all words and phrases that have us striving for average. Even performance appraisals score employees based on if they fall above or below the mean.

But high productivity and innovation don't come from aiming for the mean. Staying on course keeps us moving ahead, but doesn't make us a pioneer or industry leader. What if we made average the floor, not the ceiling?

Instead of focusing on those leaving the organization, what if we turned our attention to those who are staying and outperforming most other employees? As high achievers are 400 percent more productive than average employees, it is worth considering a refocus on retaining these high performers and converting the high potentials into high achievers. This is a great recruitment tool as high achievers tend to know and socialize with other high achievers.

The average is fine; we need those employees to keep the trains on schedule. But in an environment riddled with limited resources, tightening budgets, retention and recruitment challenges, this is an opportune time to reimagine how we recruit, retain and lead high achievers.

For a decade, I’ve been focusing my work on high achievers, interviewing everyone from astronauts, Nobel Prize winners, Olympic and NBA champions, NIH institute directors and CEOs to determine what has made them so successful and how we can elevate our success and those around us.

While we’ve all likely heard that high achievers wake up at five o’clock in the morning, make their bed before they do anything else and read for three to eight hours a day, those habits were not consistent among all high achievers. What was consistent was the drive behind how they approached and solved challenges.

As the focus on innovation and productivity improves and becomes inculcated into the company culture, the high achievers will start making connections that others don't yet see, which will lead to an improved bottom line.

As I’ve written about in my book, "The Success Factor," and will share at the upcoming 2023 Chief Learning Officer Symposium, we cannot copy other people's habits, but we can emulate their mindsets. Whether you went to space or were in the NFL Hall of Fame, the same four mindsets were present and driving forces:

What would you do for free if you could?

At the end of my interview with Olympic champions, I always ask them to show me their medals. They are often in a safe, the nightstand drawer or in the case of the most decorated winter Olympian, Apolo Anton Ohno, his medals were in a brown paper bag in his sock drawer. I was surprised the medals were not on display. I was repeatedly told that the Olympics were a chapter in their life, not the entire story.

While I thought that was odd, I thought back to all the Nobel Prize winners I interviewed. Not a single one quit doing science just because they won the Nobel. Instead, they doubled down and used their platform to do bigger things in their field.

These high achievers tapped into their intrinsic motivation. They had a natural talent for something and loved doing it. They all said they would do it for free if they could. They didn't do it for the awards, rewards, promotions or medals. They did it because they love what they do and live for the challenge of doing it well. Simply stated, they can't not do it.

Failure is data

We’ve all heard that you need a strong work ethic, resilience and grit to succeed. That's not untrue. However, the differentiating factor is how the high achievers view and approach challenges. They never question if they can overcome a challenge. Instead, they focus on how and ask themselves, "what is the strategy I have not thought of…yet." At the end of the day, they fear not trying more than they fear failing. They say failure is data and use it to improve their work on its next iteration.

Return to the basics

If you look at any NBA player's warm-up routine, it is exactly the same as what you would see in a junior high gym. Just because they’ve reached the peak of their career, they don't forget the routines that led to their success. Despite their vast experience, they are constantly working on their craft; always returning to the techniques that made them who they are today. They don't just prepare, they over-prepare.

Become a lifelong learner

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Marc Cuban are all notorious for reading three to eight hours a day. But it's not reading that made them billionaires. Instead, they opened their minds up to new ideas, possibilities and perspectives. They started looking at old things in a new way and making connections others haven't yet appreciated. Despite all of their achievements, they are constantly learning and will do so from anyone at any level of the hierarchy.

While these billionaires enjoy reading, there are other ways to learn something new that does not require you to return to the formal classroom. You can watch TED talks, listen to podcasts, watch online courses or attend conferences. The more you learn, the more you realize how much more there is to know. Keeping your mind open to learning from anyone, not just those who are senior to you or look like you, will help you succeed.

People want to succeed. But too often, we are doing random things and wondering why we, personally and as an organization, are not moving ahead at the pace we would like. There is a lack of understanding and dialogue about how to improve our success effectively. By gleaning lessons from some of the most accomplished people of our generation, we can ensure that becoming average is not our end goal. Together, we can defrost the frozen middle.

Hear more from Dr. Ruth Gotian during her keynote on October 17, 2023, at the CLO Symposium. Visit to learn more.

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What would you do for free if you could? Failure is data Return to the basics Become a lifelong learner