High-Performing vs. Mediocre Leaders: 5 Key Characteristics That Separate Them

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"The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor but without folly." - Jim Rohn

For decades organizations have been suffocated by mediocre, personal-interest-driven, questionably competent leaders, creating unhealthy work environments and leaving employees frustrated and unmotivated, and the workplace unimpressive.

For everyone who values an inspiring workplace, the 21st-century brought about a change in the overall business culture and attitudes towards all things work. Today’s high-performing leader empowers employees, and values healthy personal relationships, inclusion, and diversity. Respect and kindness matter to her, and they trump arrogance, ego and superiority.

If you are an aspiring leader, or are already one, here are some things to keep in mind if you want to avoid being a mediocre leader.

Drop the ‘My-Way-Or-The-Highway’ Manner

No one likes a smart a$$, especially not at the office. Instead of adopting the last-century-favored “I know this” attitude, try  something more powerful like “do we know this?” when talking to your team.

Take your employees’ suggestions, start a two-way conversation, and engage with the people you work with, instead of making them work for you. Everyone loves to be included in brainstorming and decision-making, and when your team starts feeling inspired by your knowledge, approach, and respect, you’ll get a team that functions like a well-oiled machine.

As Kevin Kruse, the bestselling co-author of WeHow to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement put it - “ takes both the employee and the manager to create a thriving culture that fosters feelings of full engagement.”

Stay Grounded

The fact that you are a leader could mean you did something better than someone else. However, it could also mean someone in your team who hasn’t applied for the position is currently doing it better than you.

One of the crucial elements of being a high-performing leader is staying modest and grounded. You want to observe your team as a chance to build something together, challenge and inspire each other, and learn to work as one.

The more approachable and grounded you are, the more human you appear. And that means one thing: your people will treat you as a trusted leader instead of an annoying boss they hate.

Don’t Ever Stop Learning

Take a lesson from John F.Kennedy and understand that "leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."

The moment you stop learning is the time you consciously decide to end your journey to personal development, knowledge, and satisfaction.

To be the best in your field, and a leader whose judgment, advice and decision employees trust, you need to have experience that backs up your decisions. Keep learning things relevant to the technical aspects of your role, and the leadership end of the stick. Becoming better never hurt anyone.

Be Your Employees’ Support System

Employees everywhere are fed up with bully bosses who conveniently take out their frustrations on them by exercising the weird amount of power they’ve been granted by their positions. A mindful, respectful and understanding approach to handling your employees will go a long way. Give them a reason to trust you and come to you, no matter how delicate  the subject they want to initiate.

Employees who are not afraid of their bosses are the employees that build the foundation of a thriving business.

Encourage Growth

The most significant resource you’ll ever have are your people. Encourage their dreams, listen to their feedback, and be there to help them find a way (not necessarily your way). Empower everyone to give the best they can, and embrace innovation and freedom of expression as their primary business tools.

Growth happens outside the comfort zone, and it requires leaders to practice before they preach. Push yourself to grow from your successes and your mistakes.

If your actions inspire others to learn more, do more, dream more, and become more, consider yourself a great leader.

Being a high-performing leader means being there for your people through the big stuff and the everyday challenges. Mediocre leaders pretend to have the answers and end up with bruised egos when they’re challenged. Superstars find comfort in not knowing it all but in surrounding themselves with great people who do.

If you’re a superstar, you’ll accept that there will be times when you’ll be wrong or challenged, and learn how to navigate the roads on which you might not know the answers. Find inspiration in every team discussion, and respect varying perspectives.

Be the type of leader your employees would want to work for if you ever decide to move.




Simone Brown is a performance coach who helps leaders and teams increase productivity. Her approach is grounded in  behavioural and brain-based strategies. She believes success isn’t just about talents and smarts, it’s about the development of emotional intelligence. Simone is also a speaker, and talks about topics such as emotional intelligence, millennials, and the importance of purpose.

7 reasons your star-performers are quitting

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The Director of Operations hands in her two-week notice. The CEO and her colleagues are shocked because she’s one of their hardest workers and the company has turned around and benefited from her performance. They try to understand what went wrong and why their star-performer is leaving but it’s too late. Scenarios like this play out every single day.

Many employers are caught off-guard when an employee submits their two-week notice, especially a star-performer. When asked, some claim the sudden resignation blindsided them, while others argue they had no role to play in the employee leaving.

In the U.S., more than 3.2 million people quit their jobs in May 2017 alone. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that 3 million employees have voluntarily left their position since June 2017. These are scary numbers, and the cost associated with this loss is even more frightening. Facts are it’s 1.5 to 2 times the employee’s annual salary, according to Deloitte.  

There is plenty of evidence of unhappy employee and unsatisfying work cultures – if leaders are willing to investigate.

A more in-depth analysis of why people leave reveals some interesting patterns, and the good news is – I’ve narrowed these down for you.

Pay close attention to this article, and get real honest with yourself. If any of this sounds familiar, make a note, and then address the issues with your team.

Here are seven reasons your star-performers might be leaving:

1. The company is self-centered.

Employees know when leadership views them as nothing more than cogs in a machine. They are not huge fans of companies who only care about their bottom line, and who do so at any cost.

THE FIX: It starts from the top. Senior leaders need to make their people feel valued and indispensable. Don’t just make this about your needs. Ask them about theirs. Be genuine in your concern for their professional goals and understand how these relate to their personal goals. Show employees they are needed, recognize them as individuals, give them ownership of their work. Give credit where credit is due. Many employers are surprised and were unaware when an employee submits their resignation.

2. Toxic work environments

Some people consider their office a second home. They spend most of their time here, so the environment in which they work matters. No one wants to be stressed, aggravated or living in fear 8-10 hours a day. No one!  Toxic work environments are emotionally draining and kill productivity.

Star performers would be so much better at their job if the workplace didn't have gossipers and bullies. When they notice too much negativity, they start looking for colleagues and leaders who are gentler and kinder. Who wouldn’t want a place where morale is high, and people are supportive? Employees surrounded by bullies, gossip, and harassment every day aren’t going to stick around, no matter how much you pay them.

THE FIX: Your policies, your people, and your workplace culture should protect employees from toxic work environments by being firm about behaviors that won’t be tolerated. Remember one thing amidst all this - talk is cheap. When words become actions, that’s when people believe.

From hiring and training to retention and engagement, keep reminding people that the company doesn’t promote gossip, bullying, and harassment. Host regular workshops to ensure the message sinks in and is top of mind. The key - don’t wait till something bad happens. Be proactive, not reactive.

3. Bad bosses

People don’t leave companies; they leave bad bosses. When the leadership team isn’t leading the way and setting the example for how people should treat one another, you end up with bad behaviors. Think about Uber and sexual harassment. It’s the perfect example of poor behavior. And one day, this stuff catches up with you and costs the company their reputation.

THE FIX: Think carefully about who you place in positions of authority. Use emotional intelligence assessments to understand how people in management roles interact with others, and respond to stress. Psychometric assessments are also a great indicator of behavior. Once hired, always evaluate your senior leadership on their actions, not just output. Gather ongoing feedback from every employee who reports to the manager.  

4. Lack of support and appreciation

The easiest way to lose good people is to avoid supporting them and acknowledging their efforts. According to a study by Psychometrics, 58% of employees surveyed replied with “give recognition” when asked what leaders could do more to improve engagement. And in a study by Socialcast, it was found that 69% of employees say they would work harder if they felt their efforts were more appreciated.

THE FIX: Before placing work on someone’s plate, make sure they’re equipped with the skills and resources to do their job, and do it well. Coach them regularly and help them improve. Match them with internal or external mentors to help them further their career goals. Set milestones for each employee and team, and reward these publicly. It can often motivate others to push harder. Here are some great ways to show your employees how appreciative you are of their efforts:

  • Employee appreciation gatherings
  • ‘Star Performer of the Month’ award
  • A simple thank you
  • Conversations about their goals and how you can support their success  

5. All work, no play

Surprisingly, cutthroat organizations that are all about results and process are less productive. According to Harvard Business Review, ruthless organizations inevitably lead to stressful environments and disengagement. When it’s all work and no play, people become stressed, don’t get emotionally involved, and start to detach. Eventually, they burn out and begin to resent their workplace.

THE FIX: Sometimes all it takes to cultivate fun at work and improve employee engagement is to break the routine occasionally. It can be as simple as arranging a company-sponsored lunch for the team or setting up friendly scrabble tournaments between teams. If you have space, create a designated lounge fully equipped with gaming stations, popcorn, couches, and anything that can help employees de-stress and unwind. Encourage people to have casual conversations on couches, and around fireplaces. If people like each other and don’t have to feel guilty about talking to a colleague for 10 minutes, they are likely to be more productive when they put their heads down to work.

6. Incompetent team members

Employees don’t like being led by incompetent leadership. They are also not fans of working alongside people who slow them down or disrupt their workflow. It is particularly important for high performing staff whose work relies on other team members.

THE FIX: The best way to fix this is from the start. When hiring, never underestimate the essential good fit – concerning skills, personality, and team culture. People often think of the first one but forget the second and third elements. Ask a couple of non-management members of the team to sit in on interviews to determine if someone is a good fit.

When it’s time to promote someone, be sure they’ve earned their stripes. If you have what feels like a good cultural fit, but someone lacking in technical expertise, invest in training them and be sure to coach them.

7. Lack of safety

Google’s extensive study discovered the #1 element to a high-performing team – Psychological Safety. Employees need to feel safe to share their opinions about concerns. If they can’t trust their colleagues and the people they report to, they disconnect from the company and eventually walk out the door. When an employee is fearful of speaking up (whether it’s offering an idea or sharing honest opinions about their peers or the work), you have a significant problem on your hands.

A lack of safety stems from a lack of trust and a high degree of fear. Too often the role of managing people and creating safety is offered to HR departments, and countless employee stories have proven that sometimes HR is the problem. Managers and policy enforcers should provide protection, but when a star-performer doesn’t feel safe speaking to these individuals, they will find refuge in the arms of another organization.

THE FIX: Build a workplace culture where people are heard and understood. You may not agree with every opinion, but they all deserve to be heard. If people matter, what matters to them needs to be heard – the good, bad and the ugly.

Vulnerability creates safety. Leaders can set the tone by admitting to their mistakes and becoming more vulnerable. Raise psychological safety by being a role model for engagement. Resist placing blame; focus on solutions instead. Be inclusive in decision-making by soliciting feedback and input from teammates.

Now that you have these seven tips get back to your team and ask them to audit your organization on these categories. They’ll thank you for it and who knows - you might save yourself from losing a star performer who was about to walk out the door.

Bias Bit Starbucks in the Butt & Why You Could Be Next!

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Following the event that recently took place in one of Starbucks stores in Philadelphia, Starbucks officials have found themselves in some potentially deep trouble. They've received quite a lot of heat from the press. So much heat, that they decided to close all their US-based stores for a day. That's some 8,000 stores, for the record. I’ll let you do the Math on lost revenue that resulted from this.

Whether or not racial bias was the sole cause of the incident, this event has set into motion a much-necessary avalanche of deep-thinking and questions, from executives and companies across the world. One of them being:

Is unconscious bias hindering our company’s success?

Science marks subconscious bias as a negative trait, and in the context of managing people and making effective business decisions, it has significant negative repercussions. If you're a business owner or leader, you may want to examine this sooner rather than later, or you might just fall victim to what Starbucks did. 

In my work with leaders, I help them identify and mitigate multiple forms of bias. There are almost 20 biases. And every one of them messes with your decision-making ability. Until your team does a deep dive into the topic, consider these common areas of business where bias reveals itself:

  • Hiring Bias - Occurs at the very beginning of the potential work relationship. Based on the applicant’s race, skin colour, their name color or even that tattoo you happen to spot on their way in, you’re prone to bias. The people in the interview may prejudge the candidate and decide against hiring them without giving this person a fair chance.
  • Performance Review Bias - If we decide to perceive a person in a certain way in advance, we may unconsciously look for flaws in their performance at work, and emphasize the bad stuff while undervaluing the excellent work they do. Similarly, if someone favours (or owes them a favour), they’re likely to say far too many good things.
  • Promotion Bias- A person pre-labeled as faulty or possessing an undesirable personality feature is highly likely to be omitted when it’s time to evaluate them for a promotion. Watch out because you might just be overlooking someone who could get out there and create a lot more success for another company, or heck – they might even become your competitor.

Three Examples of Workplace Bias

  • Halo Effect - Occurs when we 'decide' that we like a certain person. Whether it's thanks to a positive first impression or some particular personality trait we like about them, we may end up treating a person better than anyone else. It happens due to a blurred perception, where we concentrate on the good and ignore or downplay the bad in a person.
  • Horns Effect - The exact opposite of the aforementioned 'halo effect.’ If someone makes a wrong first impression on us or makes a blunder, we may end up judging all of their subsequent actions based on our pre-made evaluation of that person. Quite unfortunate, and this can change how we perceive their abilities, skills and talent. The result – good people get missed and don’t have a chance to contribute to the success of your company. 
  • Beauty Bias – Humans rely on visual input to create their realities. It is a fundamental survival technique, but our brains have evolved over time and we now need to be mindful of the impact that visual cues offer us. Some studies indicate that beautiful people are considered to have a higher likelihood of success. On the flip side, someone’s looks may cause people to avoid taking them seriously. Women in the workplace are often conscious about people not perceiving them as “smart and capable” because they are ”pretty.” That bias also plays into working relationships with co-workers. People who are perceived as better looking might end up being the target or jealous or insecure colleagues.

So, how do you battle bias?

If nothing else, focus on these two simple strategies

  • Staff Training - As a business leader, the first step toward battling bias in your workforce is to familiarize your staff with the concept and its detrimental effects on team performance, company culture, productivity and the overall results of your business. Create space for open dialogue about this. If people don’t understand how their brains operate, they can’t change their behaviours.

Addressing unconscious bias is not just a fad. Failing to address this has a huge cost for your company (or perhaps it already has!). You might be driving away good people and promoting bad people and bad behaviours. Once staff is trained, monitor every-day habits to ensure bias doesn’t creep into their decision making.

  • Create Diverse & Inclusive Teams - Diversity has often been misunderstood. Companies need to cultivate two forms of diversity - cognitive and identity diversity. When they do this, people are less likely to display bias in their decision-making. A diverse team brings in multiple perspectives and new ways of thinking.

Diversity also teaches people the value of those who look and think differently from them. When diverse teams interact with each other, they open their brains to alternative ways and thoughts. In general, diversity is a powerful thing. Multiple studies have linked diversity to improved performance. It’s a key element in smarter and highly productive teams. It’s also a powerful way to minimize unconscious bias.

Companies may never be able to fully eliminate subconscious bias, and that’s not the goal. What companies need to focus on, is minimizing the impact of bias.

If you have a brain, you are biased. Bias helps us pick our friends, decide what we want to buy, what we’d like to wear and the types of vacations we take. Bias can help us but it can also bite us in the butt, the way it did Starbucks.

As leaders and organizations work through bias, keep in mind that this is something that happens naturally. There’s no need to crucify an employee for displaying bias (especially if he had no clue) but it is important to make them aware and have them become more mindful of their actions.

Right from the hiring process, understand the role of unconscious bias. Create structures that assess and mitigate these biases. Leaders must emphasize cooperation and nurture a merit-based workplace culture. Encourage conversations between your staff and let everyone describe their experience working at your organization. Invite your clients and customers in the dialogue (or 'trialogue,' rather), and ask for their feedback.

Bringing our unconscious to the forefront is the first step in tackling bias. Engage in conversations, educate yourself and your employees, and then start taking bite-sized steps to consciously shifting your mindset, and your actions.

Toxic Employees: How to Detect and Deal with Them

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Charles interrupts Anne during her presentation and makes a snarky remark. The next day when Anne enters the lunch room he stops mid-sentence, and the people he is talking to go silent. As soon as Anne makes her coffee and leaves, she hears him whispering and snickering with co-workers.

No matter what form they take, you can be 100% certain that toxic employees are affecting your organization’s performance?

A study in a Forbes article,  indicates that rude employees and workplace incivility costs companies about $14,000 per employee due to lost productivity and work time.

If you’re in a positon of leadership and not paying close attention to this problem, you’re actively hindering the success of your company.

The first step to addressing this issue is detecting the people that are killing your workplace culture and probably causing the good ones to question if they’re working in the right organization.  

The bully

If you think that bullies only exist in schools, you’re wrong. In fact, according to research by Dr. Judy Blando from the University of Phoenix, 75% of employees surveyed had been affected by workplace bullying, whether as a target or a witness.

The bully isn’t always the scariest person on the team; in fact, they can come off as charismatic. The bullies in your office are the ones making fun of others. Some of them do it lightheartedly because they’re trying to get a laugh.

Then there are the worse kind of office bullies; they're the ones who corner others, make them feel bad, feed on their insecurities, and manipulate them to do their work for them.

The whiner

Employees should be encouraged to have a voice to share their concerns and grievances. It's ok to stand up for what is right; however, there's a difference between speaking up against something that is wrong and whining about something you personally don't like.

The whiner has to let everyone know when they’re unhappy about something. They may not agree with a policy or don’t like the new software everyone is expected to transition too. Whiners complain in the hopes that they find someone to agree with them so that they can be miserable together.

The yeller

Not every organization has yellers; the ones that do will tell you they’re no fun. They’re the ones who lose their temper easily. They shout at co-workers or even at people they’re on the phone with. They sometimes get away with it by claiming they’re “just having a bad day.”

Whether they’ve got something going on in their personal lives or they just lose it under stressful situations, it’s still uncomfortable for the people who have to witness their breakdowns.

The slacker

There’s nothing wrong with taking a break occasionally; in fact, it’s good for productivity. But imagine someone who looks like their breaks last longer than the actual time they work. These are the ones surfing the net all day or hanging out in the break room shooting the breeze. The reason these people are toxic is that their laziness can be infectious.

The gossipmonger

The gossipmonger is one of the most toxic of the bunch. Some gossip for giggles, while others do it to manipulate colleagues. Gossipmongers are the ones who treat the office like a soap opera, injecting drama and intrigue in everything for their own entertainment.

Gossipmongers thrive on attention and are constantly looking for anyone to exchange dirt with. While some of the stuff they say is true, there’s never a good reason why people in the office need to know about other’s private business.

Dealing with Toxic Employees

Before you confront a toxic employee, establish their pattern of behavior and document instances when their behavior has negatively impacted others.

Everyone has a story. And as irritating and poisonous as the toxic employee is, they have one too. Some people might not be self-aware. The ones who are willing to acknowledge their actions and express willingness to change, are the ones worth having a second conversation with.

Dylan Minor, an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management, tells Harvard Business Review, “A manager can use this information to coach the person, or suggest resources to help address the root of the problem.”

If an employee is coachable, help them work through the behaviours holding them, and others back. Make sure their intention is honest though.

Someone who wants to change just to save their job (and reputation) isn’t changing for the right reasons. Make sure it’s because they believe in self-improvement . If they’re a high performer, you might consider hiring a coach to help them with a plan for improvement.

In situations where the toxic employee has already been called out for their behavior and they still haven’t demonstrated willingness to change, it’s time to show them the door.

The cost of onboarding a new employee might cross your mind but think about the cost of not letting them go. You could end up losing your star-performers if your company culture isn’t healthy.