• Mar 13 2024

Learning Greatness: The 4 Traits that Power High Achievement

High performers are an organization’s greatest asset. These individuals are exceptional at solving problems, driving innovation, and achieving results. Success researcher and best-selling author Ruth Gotian has found that high-performers have four key traits in common. What are these traits, and how can every leader adopt the mindsets and practices of high-fliers to improve their performance?

Gotian joined ExecOnline CEO and Co-Founder Stephen Bailey to discuss what sets high performers apart. The two were joined by Maritza McClendon, a former Olympian and talent development leader at Carter’s, Inc. McClendon was the first African-American woman to compete on the U.S. Olympic swim team. Read on for highlights from their conversation. 

Stephen Bailey:

We’re here to talk about high performers; what distinguishes them, and what we can learn about their mindsets and practices to help us perform at our best. Ruth, this has been your field of study for many years and is the subject of your new book, “The Success Factor,” and Maritza, your career, your status as an Olympic medalist, represents the highest levels of performance. I want to hear from both of you, what was the journey that brought you here?

Maritza McClendon: 

I’ll take you back to the moment when I knew I wanted to be an Olympian. I didn’t grow up knowing that I wanted to compete on that level. In fact, what got me into swimming in the first place was that I was diagnosed with scoliosis at six; my doctor recommended that I swim to help correct it. When I first started, I had no idea how to get from one end of the pool to the other. But by the end of my first basic water safety lesson, I was hooked. I became obsessively focused on getting better and better at swimming. 

“Essentially, [people] were asking me why I was in a sport where no one else looked like me. And for me the answer was really clear: swimming is what I love to do.”

In 1996 I watched the swimmer Amy Van Dyken win four Olympic gold medals. I was in complete awe; the energy that she had and her belief that she was the best athlete in the world amazed me. And I remember thinking. “Okay, that’s what I want to do. I want to be an Olympian.”

When four years later I tried out for the US Olympic team and didn’t make it, I was incredibly devastated. But I’ve always had this drive to continue to get back up after failure, and no matter the obstacles in my way. 

I swam in a predominantly white sport. Throughout my career, I had people who looked at me and asked me crazy questions like, “What are you doing at the pool? Shouldn’t you be at the track or playing basketball?” Essentially, they were asking why I was in a sport where no one else looked like me. And for me the answer was really clear: swimming is what I love to do. 

Eventually I did make the team–and I became the first African American woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team, and won a silver medal at the 2004 games. Being the first African American woman to do that just made me want to expand my influence even further. I looked at the statistics–64% of African Americans don’t know how to swim. So when I looked ahead to what I wanted to do when my swimming career was over, I was really motivated to understand how I could use my accomplishments to help motivate others, especially those in underserved or underrepresented communities. 

Ruth Gotian:

My journey studying high performers started when I ran a MD-PhD program through which participants earn two degrees. It was an incredibly competitive, eight-year program with a 3.5% acceptance rate. But even though we were getting the best-of-the-best students there was still a high rate of students dropping out of the program before graduation.

Everyone at the institution became hyper-focused on understanding the students who left the program in order to improve the retention rate. But I was more interested in the students who stayed in the program. What did these persistent, high performers have in common? And could we look for those traits in applicants, or support other students to develop those traits?

These questions led me to go back to school at age 43 to get my doctorate, studying success, specifically as it relates to adult learning and leadership. For my research, I interviewed CEOs, astronauts, Olympic champions, other Nobel Prize winners, and senior government officials. And I found that the habits and mindsets of these high performers can be distilled into four common elements.  

“Extrinsic motivators like awards and recognition can’t sustain over the long haul. When motivation comes from within, there’s nothing external that can squash it.”

The first is intrinsic motivation–it’s what Maritza was talking about when she said she was motivated to succeed no matter what because swimming is what she loved to do. It’s why she was put on this earth, why she woke up in the morning–it wasn’t about the extrinsic motivators, like the awards and recognition. Those motivators can’t sustain over the long haul. But when motivation comes from within, there’s nothing external, like the judgment of others, that can squash it.

The second element is perseverance, also referred to as work ethic, resilience, or grit. High achievers do not throw up their hands when they hit an obstacle. They work in a very particular way to overcome challenges, which is to figure out the variables of a challenge that are within their control, and focus on those, breaking down a big problem into more manageable problems and always asking themselves, “what strategy have I not thought of yet?”

The third element is a strong foundation of consistent practice. I’m sure Maritza will attest to countless hours spent training in the pool, and I’m willing to bet that her practice included a consistent warm-up routine to prepare her body and her mind. That consistent conditioning is the foundation on which she was able to succeed. High performers, no matter their discipline, all tend to have that foundation of consistent practice. 

Lastly, high performers understand that they don’t know what they don’t know, and that there is always more to learn. They actively seek that knowledge from people who are senior to them or more expert. That expertise can come from people they know personally, or from reading, listening to podcasts, attending conferences, or taking courses, like the ones offered by ExecOnline. High performers are lifelong learners who surround themselves with mentors. 


These resonate with me so much. Especially when you spoke about intrinsic motivation. Even as a teenager, I was so motivated to succeed in swimming; my friends would invite me to go out to the movies, and I would pass because I wanted to wake up early to swim the next morning. I absolutely loved training, it was my happy place to go to practice, even if it meant waking up at 4:30 AM. And that passion fueled my work ethic and my perseverance in the face of criticism and other people’s doubts. 

I also resonated with that last element of success, foundational practice. When Ruth mentioned consistency, I thought about my warm-up routine before races, which was exactly the same when I was 12 as it was when I swam my last race at age 28. It was the exact same warmup that helped me feel comfortable and click into focus, no matter what was going on around me. 

As for seeking mentors, I already mentioned how Amy Van Dyken was my original inspiration for becoming an Olympic swimmer. As I developed in my sport, I really tapped into finding inspiration and listening to people around me. My coach was a big influence and supporter and another huge influence for me was Muhammad Ali, whom I actually got the chance to meet. 

“I was astounded. My idol, who I watched on TV and VHS tapes with my dad, knew who I was? That experience is still an inspiration to me to this day.”

It was at the 2004 Olympics, I was competing and he was there to do a panel for ESPN. My teammates knew he was my idol, so they came to tell me he was there. I hopped out of the pool and went to go find him. The first thing he did when he saw me was open his arms. He wanted a big hug. I couldn’t believe it; my jaw dropped. I hugged him and we took pictures, and his wife came up to me and told me he had been waiting to meet me, that he had heard about me. I was astounded. My idol, who I watched on TV and VHS tapes with my dad, knew who I was? That experience is still an inspiration to me to this day. 


That is amazing. Both of you, Maritza and Ruth, are involved in talent development. And you both know from research and experience the traits that drive high performance. So what can talent and L&D leaders do to cultivate these traits among employees at their organizations?


Firstly, high achievers want to surround themselves with mentors. We know, based on research, that those who are mentored out-earn and outperform those who are not; they have lower burnout and are more productive. The problem is that many people don’t know how or where to find mentors. Beyond implementing formal coaching and mentoring programs, organizations should create organic ways for people to meet each other and initiate conversations with people outside of their usual circle. From there, employees can begin to build communities and networks and find new opportunities for collaboration and mentorship. 

“If you want innovation and high productivity make sure you invest meaningfully in the development of your high achievers.”

High achievers also want to learn. They crave new knowledge. Talent and L&D leaders should look at the ways that they can create as many learning opportunities as possible within the organization. Look at the learning opportunities that are currently available, and assess whether those opportunities are meeting the interests and knowledge gaps of employees. 

Invest in their learning. If high achievers aren’t learning, they may not stay at your organization, and these are some of your most valuable people. Research shows that high achievers produce 400% more than an average employee. 400%! So if you want innovation and high productivity, make sure you are investing meaningfully in their development. 


I know from my experience as an Olympian and a talent manager, setting goals is one of the most effective ways to drive performance. Set big goals, then set little milestones along the way. This gives people a framework to “fail forward.” Things aren’t always going to work out according to plan. But by setting incremental goals, it is easier to look back when you fail and identify when things went wrong and what you could have done differently, and keep moving. And, of course, continuously realigning individual goals to team and organizational goals is key.  

Mentorship is also critical. I’ve had many bosses who have served as mentors who truly invested in my performance. They didn’t just support and encourage me, they showed me where I had room to improve. Leaders need to make sure that they aren’t just supporting employees by telling them that everything they’re doing is fantastic; they need to take a moment to understand the career goals of their employees, and give them constructive guidance that helps them get where they want to go. 

This conversation has been excerpted and edited for length.

Ruth Gotian is the best-selling author of Success Factor: Developing the Mindset and Skillset for Peak Business Performance. Gotian is ranked by Thinkers50 as a top management thinker. She is the featured expert on two ExecOnline courses, including “Leading High Performers.”

Maritza McClendon is a former Olympic athlete and the first African-American woman to compete on the U.S. Olympic swim team. She is a speaker and advocate for swimming and water safety in underserved communities. She is the Director of Talent Development and Corporate Communications, HR at Carter’s Inc.

Stephen Bailey is the CEO and Co-Founder of ExecOnline. Since 2012, Bailey has been a pioneer in online leadership development, forging partnerships with the world’s top business schools, management experts, and leadership coaches to help organizations develop future-ready talent.

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