In the business world, high performance is a term associated with appraisals and inserted before ‘team’. But what does ‘high performance’ really mean, asks executive coach and leadership guru James Sweetman.

The dynamics and disciplines of high performance are easily spotted in the world of sports. Consistency, resilience, focus, a winning record, strong work ethic and a hunger for improvement are just some of the qualities we will notice successful individuals and teams display.

Some companies foster a culture that supports and rewards high performance. While accolades and external feedback can spur motivation, ultimately, high performance is an inside job. Self-awareness and self-assessment are key factors irrespective of how our performance is labelled.

“We are what we repeatedly do, excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

The high performance mindset

As well as being a habit, high performance is a mindset. You have to see yourself as a high performer or somebody capable of high performance. In other words, being a high performer is part of how you self-identify.

You have a sense of your potential and an awareness of where you are now and where you want to be in terms of your effectiveness and level of achievement.

Negativity, a victim mentality and cynicism are qualities that don’t lend themselves to high performance. A positive outlook, a ‘can-do’ attitude is vital. When the going gets tough, high performers dig deep into their reserves of self-belief and resilience and bounce back.

In the difficult times, rather than blaming others, they look within and ask – what can I learn from this?

The seven disciplines of high performance

1. Results focus

How will you know you are on the right track unless you know your destination. We might use the term goal, objective or commitment, but when it comes to high performance the focus is on results.

In a match a goal may or may not be scored, but there will always be a result. What’s important? What’s my intention? What does success look like here? These are questions high performers ask frequently, applying them over different time frames.

2. Generate energy

High performers know the importance of managing their energy levels. How do you fuel yourself when it comes to nutrition, hydration, exercise and rest?

Two simple distinctions can have a big impact. The first is breathing. Stress, anxiousness and being overwhelmed are synonymous with a fast shallow breath.

Purposeful deep breaths oxygenates the blood, which paradoxically calms us down but also keeps us alert. The second distinction is monitoring how you manage your transitions, those moments of shifting between different tasks throughout the day, as well as the transition from work mode to personal life mode.

3. Dig deep – resilience

A real sign of a champion’s mindset is that they pull out a performance when it matters most. Just as we build muscle through resistance training, the challenges we face present the greatest opportunities for learning and growth.

High performers relish being pushed by a strong opponent, because it takes a challenge to bring out their best.

It is in difficult times that we have to connect with our sources of motivation. When sports stars are interviewed you often hear them speak about putting in the work and pushing through because they know their deeper 'why', their motivation.

They’re doing it to make their family proud, or to be a role model. They know what’s important to them, why success matters – it’s personal.

4. Productivity focus

There is a marked difference between being busy and being productive. We also know that just because we do a task well, it doesn’t mean that that task is important.

High performers are not busy people, they are productive people, applying their energy, attention and effort where it matters most. They lean into proactivity whenever possible, because with proactivity comes a greater sense of control.

5. Develop influence

Social skills and the ability to establish positive working relationships are vital competencies when it comes to high performance, especially in organisations.

We achieve little in isolation. Even individual sports stars have their coach and support team and have to be adept at handling the media.

True high performers are humble, they recognise the skills and contributions of others. It is not just what you achieve, but how you achieve it and who you are (the qualities and attitude you display) in the process of achievement.

6. Demonstrate courage

It is never confidence that gets us to push our comfort zone, to try something new, to dig deep – it is always courage. From the Latin ‘cor’ meaning heart – to be courageous is to put our heart into it.

When we think about people we admire, a common factor will be the courage demonstrated in overcoming challenges. High performers acknowledge their struggles because they know that this is how character is built.

7. Hunger for learning

At elite levels in sports and business it is the smallest factors that make the difference. You can only hunt for these critical distinctions with a mindset of curiosity, flexibility and a hunger to continuously upskill. Complacency is the enemy.

Those who succeed at the highest levels harness feedback, but only as a way of supplementing and validating their own self-assessment.

Performance no matter how it is labelled is found at the intersection of motivation, capability and behaviour. High performance follows when a positive mindset ignites an expanding skillset and is translated into daily habits that are continuously refined.

“Opportunity and success are always disguised as hard work.” Anon.

Author: James Sweetman is a motivational speaker and executive coach focusing on leadership, presentation skills and personal development. He is also the author of five books. More information is available at