We See You: How Organizations Find and Recognize Top Contributors

Every organization has top talent, and finding and fostering those key players is critical to a company’s ability to thrive during both good and challenging times.

In the global foodservice industry, top contributors make themselves known in a variety of ways. They drive exceptional outputs, come up with new ideas, foster change in their organization, and deliver sustainable results.

Four qualities distinguish top performers:

  • A relentless drive toward self-improvement
  • Trustworthiness and reliability
  • Intelligence and creativity
  • Willing to stand on principle

Cultivating these traits is key to a successful operation, and executives can take a number of actions to encourage and develop these employees:

  • Communicate a compelling set of values
  • Provide tools and resources to support associates
  • Engage crew-level employees in big initiatives
  • Tailor recognition to individuals

How to Recognize Top Performers

Not every key player in an organization contributes in the same way, but most:

1. Top Contributors Push To Improve Themselves

Top employees are competitive — with their peers, but also with themselves. They challenge themselves to do and be better, to refine and obtain new skills and experiences that will make them more valuable to their employer and colleagues.

In the Archways to Opportunity program run by McDonald’s and its independent franchisees, employees are empowered to expand their knowledge and capabilities, regardless of life stage. This includes polishing their English language skills, earning a high school diploma, and pursuing a college degree.

While the global chain offers employees the tools and infrastructure, it’s the focus, drive, and commitment inherent in the people who participate in this program that means only top performers seize this opportunity.

McDonalds Top Performer

2. Top Contributors Cultivate Trust

Top talent can be counted on to deliver high-quality performance, consistent, strategic decisions, steady people management, backup in a pinch, and discretion. This level of reliability takes time to develop, but, once established, it’s priceless.

One notable global hospitality company — the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company — has made trust the bedrock of its world-class customer service. The organization allows employees to make decisions in the best interest of guests in real time, using up to $2,000. No need to ask permission. No need to call a manager. Just solve the problem.

This model works because new employees undergo an intensive three-week training program, during which they work closely with a more experienced mentor. The hotel chain also has “just-in-time training,” activated if guest surveys or mystery shoppers report any concerns. The Ritz-Carlton’s commitment to training its staff not only ensures best-in-class customer service, but it also builds trust, honesty, respect, and integrity into every employee’s working experience.

Ritz Top Performer

3. Top Contributors Innovate

While aptitude and expertise are critical to overall performance, the ability to innovate is what sets top contributors apart. These associates don’t just think outside the box, they don’t see a box. They anticipate the needs of the organization and its client base in an effort to stay ahead of the curve.

This fall, Starbucks will open its first Signing Store in the U.S., located in Washington, D.C. The unique store will promote accessibility, offering employment and career advancement for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. More significantly, the new location is the brainchild of by Deaf Starbucks partners and allies. After a Signing Store opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2016, American Deaf partners were inspired to advocate for a U.S. location.

Employees who drive innovation — from finding new ways of connecting with customers and solving complex problems to building the brand, and moving the business forward — exist in every company. The best leaders tap into that talent, locating and encouraging the individuals in their organization who are driven to realize positive change and have a lasting impact on the business as well as the diverse communities it serves.

Starbucks Top Performer

4. Top Contributors Put the Organization First

Top contributors embrace the courage of their convictions, even when it’s uncomfortable. They focus on what’s right for the team and organization. While they recognize that they’re being paid to have — and communicate — an opinion, savvy top performers also pick their battles.

The ultimate display of professional principles is stepping away from a role. Though we might argue that he took too long to take action, Chipotle CEO Steve Ells’s decision to step down in late 2017 after years of crises and criticism was ultimately the most mature and strategic move. It showed that he — with a nudge from activist investor Bill Ackman — put what was best for the company, its employees, customers, and shareholders first.

Chipotle Top Performer

How To Retain Top Performers

Top performers contribute incredible value to an organization and are often batting away job offers, so it’s critical that leadership focus on recognizing and retaining them. The most effective way to keep key players is to ensure they know how to make an impact on the organization. Management teams should work to:

1. Articulate a clear and compelling vision and set of values for the organization

Top performers tend to be more skeptical than other employees, so they need to feel connected to something bigger than themselves and understand how they fit into the bigger picture.

sweetgreen – a QSR focused on simple and healthy food – leverages social and digital channels to clearly articulate its story, core values, and ambitious mission for impacting its associates, customers, and the communities it serves.

Potential and current employees can easily understand the persuasive “why” behind sweetgreen and draw the connection between their own role and the broader goals of this emerging foodservice brand.

sweetgreen top performer

2. Provide the tools, resources, and working environment that helps associates perform at their highest and best level

These efforts will vary across organizations and roles, but tailoring them to meet associates’ needs will encourage productivity and goodwill.

Viceroy Hotels, which operates luxury properties in North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe, turned to technology to make it easier for their employees to satisfy guest needs. No matter the department, every associate now wears a smart watch, which buzzes when a request comes through. The employee closest or most equipped to handle the situation taps their watch to let others know they are working on it.

As a sleek replacement to a walkie-talkie or phone, the smart watches won’t interrupt employees who are currently assisting guests, nor does it require them to stop what they’re doing to see what’s needed. This innovative solution shows a clear understanding of the challenges hotel employees face.

Viceroy top performers

3. Include the best crew-level employees in strategic initiatives aimed at improving organizational competitiveness

The people who contribute the most to an organization care about the future of the company. They like to see that its leaders are aligned with the changing demands of the industry and are aggressively planning to meet them.

Strategic committees are commonly perceived as additional duties assigned to high-potential associates, and Starwood Hotel & Resorts leveraged such a group to address challenges in its underdeveloped food & beverage program. Using both external and internal resources to elevate their approach to the program, Starwood created an innovative framework that consolidated food and beverage marketing programs across properties. The program was so successful that all internal participants were either promoted (or hired away into a higher role at another company) within approximately six months of launch.

4. Tailor reward and recognition to individual contributors

Not everyone wants to be recognized in the same way, and a personal touch will resonate with employees. If leaders show that they’re investment in their employees — and their successes — these associates will continue to invest in the team and the organization.

Like most multinational companies, Starbucks has a formal recognition framework for supporting and promoting its employees, including Partner of the Quarter, Anniversary Awards, and Performance Awards. An integral part of this system is the element of customization: when partners receive awards, they earn points that can be applied to merchandise, learning and development programs, and even opportunities to help their communities. Starbucks puts the power of choice in their partners’ hands, letting them decide how they want to be recognized. No risk, all reward.

Starbucks top performers 2

Top performers help move their organizations forward swiftly and successfully, attracting new clients, developing other talented employees, and mitigating risk by going above and beyond for guests.

All of this is only possible if leaders know who they are, foster their skills, passions, and productivity, and reward them for their remarkable efforts.

Find them. Recognize them. Then watch them — and the organization — thrive.


Aaron Allen & Associates works alongside leaders of foodservice and hospitality companies to find, size, and seize opportunities to drive growth, optimize performance, and maximize enterprise value. Collectively, our clients post more than $200b in sales, span all six inhabited continents and 100+ countries, with locations totaling tens of thousands.