November 16, 2021 8:01 PM EST

We’ve focused a lot over the past year on how to adjust to the changes to work and how managers can navigate them. Impact Players, a new book by Liz Wiseman, tackles a more timeless question: What are the attributes of standout individual contributors, the people who managers turn to in critical situations? How do you become one of those people, who Wiseman calls “impact players”? And how do managers create the conditions to attract and develop them?

Wiseman, a former Oracle executive who’s now an author and business advisor, asked executives at 170 organizations to identify their impact players, and then analyzed the behaviors and attributes of those people. She and her research team identified a number of things that differentiate them from other, less exceptional, workers she calls “contributors.”

Wiseman’s core contention is that impact players bring a different mindset to dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty in the workplace, such as unclear roles or unforeseen obstacles. Where others view such things as threats, impact players see them as opportunities and challenges to be embraced. “They find a way to break through and make an impact while others are merely going through the motions,” Wiseman writes. (p. xii)

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At a high level, it seems obvious to say that the workers who get jobs done despite challenges, step in to lead when needed, step back at the right moment, don’t indulge in workplace politics, and keep their managers informed are especially valuable to organizations. And Wiseman doesn’t deeply explore how bias colors managers’ assessments of who the superstars are, when research has shown that race, gender, caregiving responsibilities, proximity and other factors clearly play a role.

But on the whole she helpfully outlines the attributes that are correlated with making an outsized contribution to a team, presents examples from the companies she studied, and suggests how we all can have more impact in our jobs.

Among the findings in Impact Players:

  • Exceptional workers determine the job that needs to be done, whether or not it has been clearly articulated or fits with how their role has been defined. They don’t necessarily work harder, but they focus on doing the work that is most needed—Wiseman calls that “What’s Important Now,” or “WIN.”
  • They step up and lead in the face of ambiguity, rather than waiting for direction from above. But they also step back when their leadership isn’t required.
  • Impact players consistently get things over the finish line, navigating through challenges rather than escalating every problem to their manager.
  • They continuously learn and adapt as targets and situations change.
  • Impact players make the work feel lighter for everyone, through humor and appreciation of others and care for their wellbeing. People want to work with them.

How do you become an impact player?

  • Wiseman recommends changing your perspective to perceive situations from others’ points of view, including those of a manager, colleague, or a customer. “When we see through stakeholders’ eyes, what’s important to them becomes clear and increases our understanding of their priorities and needs. We have a better angle from which to see the real job that needs to be done,” Wiseman writes. (p. 211) Listening longer before taking action is one tactic.
  • Changing your lens onto your work to see ambiguity as an opportunity rather than a threat. “Unclear direction and changing priorities are chances to add value,” Wiseman writes. Impact players “don’t see problems as distractions from their job; rather they are the job.” (p. 9)
  • Experiment with different approaches to challenges, and gather evidence about what works. Wiseman recounts how one business strategist had a thesis that saying less in a meeting could lead to more impact if he went in focused only on making the points he felt were most critical—after trying it out, he concluded it worked.

How can managers attract and develop impact players?

  • Hire for what’s hardest to coach. Wiseman’s research suggests that some mindsets and behaviors of exceptional workers are harder to teach and learn, so she recommends looking for those when hiring. They include an opportunity mindset, an openness to both leading and following others, an ability to identify what’s important, and a sense of fun and humor. Wiseman says that qualities such as proactivity and hunger for feedback can be more easily coached, so are less essential to focus on when interviewing candidates.
  • Clearly define the WIN. Wiseman recounts how while at Oracle she wrote three top-priority initiatives on a whiteboard on a door of her office to remind her team what was most important.
  • Demonstrate how effective leadership can be a temporary assignment. That way workers see how they can step up but also step back based on the context.
  • Insist on getting jobs past the finish line. Wiseman recounts how one Amazon executive’s manager wouldn’t let him start a new role until he fixed his existing business.
  • Critique the work rather than the person. Feedback is more useful and easier to give when it’s not delivered as an attack on your colleague. Leaders need to make workers feel safe about taking risks, but also set high standards, give candid feedback, and hold people accountable.
  • Let colleagues know what you appreciate. Wiseman recommends using the format “When you do X, it’s easier for me to do Y.” (p. 247)

To be sure:

  • Wiseman says that impact players are most easily identified by asking managers who they turn to in critical situations. But a range of biases—including those related to gender, race, and proximity—play a role in shaping managers’ answers to that question. Wiseman downplays such bias, contending that the impact players her research surfaced were evenly split across race and gender. And she encourages managers to make implicit norms explicit, distribute high-profile assignments equitably, and to try mitigating bias by, for example, being sure to give actionable feedback to underrepresented groups. Nevertheless, the book’s focus on superstar employees risks amplifying such bias.

Memorable anecdotes and facts:

  • Earlier in his career, Adobe executive Maninder Sawhney abandoned a presentation he was giving to the company’s leadership after realizing that it didn’t fit what Adobe needed in that moment and asked if he could return in two weeks with one that did. Maninder came back with a new framework, and was elevated to take responsibility for it.
  • Employees who can decode and adapt to organizational culture are more successful than those who come in with a high cultural fit, according to Stanford researchers.
  • A new constraint related to solar power on the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit required their developers to redevelop the landing vehicle on an impossibly tight timeline. Despite nearly not being ready for its launch, the Opportunity exceeded its life expectancy by 60 times.
  • Professionals said access to information and action from leaders were the most important things they needed to succeed, while budget and head count ranked low on their lists, according to a Wiseman survey.
  • Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas managed to treat 215 patients injured in a 2017 mass shooting incident within seven hours, thanks partly to the attending physician’s preplanning and mental rehearsals of how he would handle such a tragedy.
  • Individuals who self-identify as leaders are more open to feedback than those who describe themselves as followers, and those who say they adapt to leading or following depending on the situation are the most coachable and willing to learn, according to a PsychTests study.

Choice quotes:

  • “We can under-contribute by over-contributing. We can deliver too little value while working extremely hard. Whether we are tripped up by the ambiguity of new mores or the sacrosanctity of old rules, we can end up doing great but irrelevant work. We may be expending significant force, but the vector of our effort is off target.” (p. 19)
  • “The most important work feels as though it is everyone’s job yet no one’s job. Too many professionals are stuck in organizational boxes that don’t match the real work.” (p. 34)
  • “Purpose rarely comes from sitting down and contemplating purpose. Mostly, surely in my case, one accidentally trips over purpose.”—management theorist Tom Peters (p. 53)
  • “When there are unclear roles, you have a choice to make. My choice is to lead.”—Paul Forgey, senior director at Target
  • “When things are tough and the load is heavy, the most valuable players on teams make work lighter. Though they may not be able to reduce the workload, they make the work process easier and more joyful.” (p. 169)
  • “Failure to change is typically due to an overabundance of ambition, not a lack thereof. We generally fail by trying to adopt too many new behaviors at once.” (p. 207)
  • “In times of uncertainty, the best leaders create stability for their team by absorbing ambiguity.” (p. 213)

The bottom line is that Impact Players provides specific tips for individuals to increase their contributions to their organizations and accelerate their careers, and for managers to attract and develop such exceptional workers. Its principal shortcoming is that it doesn’t fully address the role that bias plays in determining who is thought of as a superstar in a workplace.

You can order Impact Players at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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