It’s no secret top performers contribute a disproportionate amount of output in our organizations. Rather than seeing an even distribution of performance throughout the workforce, one study found that 10% of productivity comes from the top 1% of employees and 26% of output is a product of the top 5%.

That means top talent produces 4X as much as the average employee, and companies like Apple and Google report even greater gaps between average and high performers. So who are these impressive individuals that make outsized contributions to our businesses, and how can we hire more of them so that we reach our business goals faster?

To infuse our organizations with top talent, first we need to know what sets these high performers apart from the rest of the workforce. What are they like and why do they achieve so much? We surveyed 1,000 employers to find out what makes their top performers stand out, and our research reveals ways organizations can optimize their recruitment processes to attract more top talent.

Top performers share five key attributes

We asked employers to name the #1 attribute exhibited by their best performers, and their top five responses were problem solving, drive, self-direction, strategic thinking and initiative. High-performing employees are driven to get things done, need little hand-holding, and have knowledge and experience that allow them to generate high-quality work. They regularly go above and beyond, and have tangible successes to show for their efforts.

The graph shows results of a study that asked employers to identify the #1 attribute exhibited by their best performers.
This graph shows results of an Indeed employer study that asked employers to identify the #1 attribute exhibited by their best performers. It includes the following responses in descending order: problem solving (36%), drive (33%), self-direction (29%), strategic thinking (28%), initiative (27%), communication (24%), adaptability (21%), passion (21%), ownership (19%), collaboration (17%), coachability (13%) and influence (12%).

Combining innate talent with learned skills

We also asked employers which attributes they think are innate and which traits can be acquired on the job. The majority of employers say drive, self-direction and initiative are largely innate qualities. When it comes to strategic thinking and problem solving, employers were more likely to believe these are learned behaviors.

With this survey data, we’re able to form a portrait of top talent as individuals with an innate bias toward action along with the capacity to learn how to do things effectively—in a word, experience. Employers can work to attract more top performers by seeking out candidates with this bias toward action and a track record of successful experience.

Target top talent with inbound tactics and the right job content

To attract self-directed, action-oriented candidates, recruiters need to think like active job seekers and target high performers in the places where they’re looking for opportunities, like Indeed. Employers can also write job postings that appeal to these driven strategic thinkers. Show them how your jobs offer the chance to take initiative with projects, make a significant impact and solve challenging problems.


This survey was fielded online within the United States from March 16-22, 2016, among 4,000 adults ages 18 and older, among whom 2,439 employed and unemployed job seekers (1,439 employed adults and 1,000 unemployed adults) and 1,561 employed adults not currently looking for new opportunities, using the Decipher survey platform owned by FocusVision on behalf of Indeed. We identified “top performers” as the sample of respondents who are regularly recognized for work contributions and who reported their managers or peers have associated them with any of the attributes identified in our employer research.