Motivating High Achievers: Unique Ways to Motivate People Who Have It All

A well-accepted forecasting formula in marketing is that 20% of the salespeople bring in 80% of the sales. The economic health of many companies is based on the sales results achieved by their sales superstars. It is critically important that company executives understand the care and feeding of these top performers because the loss of just a few of them could have a devastating effect on corporate sales and profits.

Sales and marketing superstars know they are good and feel that they deserve to be highly compensated for the results they produce. In some companies, the top salespeople earn as much or more than senior vice presidents or even the president. Realizing that there are limits as to how much compensation a company can offer, how does one go about motivating the “people who have it all?”

In this article, we will examine some of the latest techniques being used to keep high achievers motivated and loyal. To be effective, motivational and incentive programs for high achievers need to take into account their unique drives and individual psychological needs.

The Psyche of the Peak Performer

Peak performers have an extremely high desire to succeed and to distinguish themselves from average performers. This burning desire for success provides the fuel that enables peak performers to work the extra-long hours and to attend to the hundreds of small details that make their success possible. Successful people do the things that unsuccessful people don’t want to do.

This desire for the exceptional provides a valuable insight into how to motivate and keep your top performers loyal. “More of the same” doesn’t work very effectively in motivating top performers. If your annual incentive award is a one-week trip to Hawaii, giving your very best people a two-week trip to Hawaii will probably not be very inspiring. Giving them “more” gold watches or “more” fur coats may also lack effectiveness as a motivational strategy.

Peak performers feel like they deserve the very best. They want the finest, the creme de la creme. Most would rather have one $l,500 suit than three $500 suits. Most peak performers would rather have a shorter vacation at a 5-star international luxury hotel than a longer stay at a merely deluxe hotel.

The good news is that to motivate your high achievers, you don’t necessarily have to spend more money than you planned to spend.   The key is that whatever dollar amount you have allocated should be spent on the very highest quality incentives available in that price range. In the psyche of the high achiever, quality and class are much more highly valued than quantity.

Many companies erroneously pay their top achievers somewhat more than they have to in the mistaken assumption that “money is the only thing that motivates them.” What these companies do not realize is that peak performers are motivated by many other factors besides money. And, after a certain point, money begins to lose its motivational force. Due to the Tax Reform Act of 1986, there are very few tax shelters left and consequently, for many high performers earning more money simply means a bigger tax bill. An increase in pay may not make much difference in take home income, and it might bring on a greater likelihood of an audit.

Peak performers seldom leave a company because another company offers a few dollars more. They leave because their other, non-financial needs, are not being met.   If dumping more money on your already highly-paid top performers isn’t the magic motivational bullet, what is?

How to Motivate the “Have it All’s” with a Limited Budget

To keep performance levels high and to foster loyalty, incentive awards for top producers should trigger recipients to think, “No other company would do this for me.”

No matter what the award, prize or vacation, it should be the finest in its class. If your budget only permits you to give away pencils, make sure your top performers get gold-plated pencils studded with a few diamonds.

We’ll use some examples to illustrate how companies today are motivating their key employees who “have it all.” We’ll show how companies with budgets ranging from the limited to the more generous can use creative thinking to keep their peak performers happy.

A photocopier sales company we consult with has designed a wildly successful motivational campaign on a limited budget. They have decided to give their top performers each month a “night on the town,” which includes limousine service, a dinner for two at any restaurant in town, and a first-run play or musical. There is a dollar limit of $500 per couple, and so far, no couple has exceeded it.

Let’s look at the psychology of this inexpensive incentive program to learn what makes it so effective. Like all good incentive programs, it is based on giving something a person would be unlikely to buy himself or herself. Few people would rent a limousine to go out to a fancy restaurant. Second, it is successful because it involves the spouse. Spouses are motivational experts. Including them in your incentive programs is one of the wisest moves you can make. Finally, the program is successful because, even though the budget is limited, it offers the finest experience in its class. The couple can order virtually anything they want at the nicest restaurant in town with no concern about cost.

A data processing company with a limited budget wanted to offer travel incentive awards. Given the small amount of money they had to spend, this was quite a challenge.   They elected to provide first-class travel experiences to closer destinations rather than coach air fares to more distant locales. Based in southern California, one year they took their top performers and their spouses on first-class trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The trip was made on a chartered private jet. At the Grand Canyon, they transferred to smaller private planes and were treated to awe-inspiring flights into and over the Grand Canyon.   Even people who had previously been to the Grand Canyon said that the experience of flying inside the Canyon in a small plane was breathtaking and unforgettable.

After the private tour of the Grand Canyon, the peak performers and their spouses were escorted to an expansive mansion where they spent the night being treated like royalty. Expensive wines and champagne were served as a famous chef prepared an elaborate gourmet meal for these peak performers.   They were probably thinking, “No other company would do this for us.”

A medical equipment company we consult with had a slightly larger budget and decided to fly their peak performers to Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border. Housing their stars in one of the nicest hotels on the Nevada side of the gem-like Lake Tahoe, this company paid for all travel, meals, expenses and provided tickets to all the top casino shows (Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, et. al.), scheduled in historic tours of near-by ghost towns, fishing tips, horseback riding, hot air balloon rides over the scenic mountains, and provided $500 cash to each couple for “fun money.” Some couples used this money to gamble “guilt-free” at the casinos, others bought clothing and a few probably saved it.

This company’s thoughtfulness and attention to every detail turned what could have been an “average” incentive trip to Lake Tahoe into a “perfect week” for the couples in attendance.

Motivation Through Fulfillment of Higher Needs

As Maslow pointed out, once basic needs for food, shelter, and safety are met, people turn their attention to higher level needs. Two higher level needs that is especially significant to peak performers are the related needs for recognition and status. It is in fact the need for recognition that drives many top producers to work so hard for so many years to reach the level of success they enjoy.

Your incentive and motivational programs need to take these almost unquenchable needs for status and needs for recognition into account. Creative executives have found several low-cost ways of motivating their top performers by fulfilling these needs.

A change in job title can sometimes be more motivational than a $5,000 raise to a peak performer. After federal and local taxes, Social Security and other deductions, the $5,000 raise isn’t worth that much to a top performer. However, if you can reprint his or her business cards to carry the title “Vice President” rather than “account executive,” you have created a very powerful incentive.

Even if a competitor offers a $10,000 raise, your employee may not accept it if it involves a demotion in title back to “account executive.” To your peak performer, a high-status title he can brag about to friends, spouse, relatives and clients means as much or more than a raise.

Another method of conferring status is by providing opportunities to interact with the top company brass. One of the most serious mistakes a company can make in its incentive programs is to have awards or prizes given out by a secretary. The subliminal message that is sent is, “This isn’t very important.”

Instead of having a secretary give out expensive incentive awards, it can be much more powerful to have the company’s president personally deliver less-expensive awards. One of our client companies chartered a small private yacht for a Friday afternoon ocean cruise and dinner. The company’s top performers and their spouses were invited. Before dinner was served, the company’s president handed out small gold-plated award statues, which looked somewhat like the Oscar, to each of the peak performers. The president shook hands with and made a few complimentary personal remarks to each person. What made this so effective is that the president gave the gold-plated statues and delivered the complimentary remarks in front of each person’s spouse. This brief ocean cruise with the president fulfilled the need for recognition and the need for status better than incentive awards which could have cost a great deal more money.

Another way of fulfilling the higher level needs for recognition and status is to publish a feature article in your company newsletter about one or two of your top performers. The people written about may feel “famous,” and don’t be surprised if they ask for extra copies of the newsletter to send to relatives, friends and clients. Some even give copies of these articles to their children. One top performer told us recently, “ I feel like I am immortal. I feel like this article will live on long after I do.” To further fulfill this need for recognition, be sure to publish a high-quality photograph of the peak performer being honored. This is one of the least-expensive yet most powerful incentives a company can provide to its top performers who “have it all.”

A final method of fulfilling the need for status and recognition is to invite one or more of your stars to deliver a speech or workshop at the company’s next big meeting. An award ceremony, no matter how elegant, offers just a few minutes of recognition for a top performer. The opportunity to present a speech or workshop can offer 30 minutes, an hour or more of recognition. One of our client companies has set up a “Star Search” program featuring a panel of its top performers. They are welcomed with a fanfare of orchestral music as they take their assigned seats in front of the audience. For the next 50 minutes, the audience, their peers, ask questions and ask for tips from these in-house superstars. These superstars work in anonymity throughout much of the year and look forward to Star Search, where their accomplishments and expertise are honored.

Flexibility: the Ultimate Power

The best incentive and motivational programs for peak performers have built in a tremendous amount of individuality. No one incentive can be highly motivational to all people.

The key to designing the most effective incentive programs is to look at the most pressing needs of each person you wish to motivate or reward. When looking at a person’s needs, be sure to include consideration of the effects of age, marital status, children and their needs, health care, educational and retirement needs. The things that motivate a single 26 year old are very different that the motivators of a 48 year old with two children in college. While this seems obvious, it is surprising how many otherwise sophisticated companies will offer the same, one-size-fits-all motivators to all of their people.

One of the best methods for designing a rewards program is to seek direct input from the person being rewarded. In other words, directly ask individuals how they would like to be recognized and rewarded.

Here are some of the more unique and powerful motivators that creative companies have used to motivate their peak performers. Most of these motivators are based on sound psychology as to how needs change throughout the human lifespan. A pressing need for many people in their twenties is to buy their first home. A powerful motivator is to loan the person the down-payment for the house at a very low interest rate. This also encourages a great degree of loyalty to the company.   In their thirties, many couples are faced with the large bills that come from raising a family and supporting a household. To motivate someone in this age range, offer to reimburse all daycare and babysitting expenses for a year. Talk about motivational!

Another client company of ours learned that one of their top performers had been procrastinating on getting a new roof for his home. The incentive award that year was a trip to Hong Kong. However, this peak performer had been to Hong Kong twice before. He didn’t perceive another trip to Hong Kong as a great motivator. Luckily, this company was flexible enough to offer him what he really wanted: a new red tile roof for his home.

As children get older, parents begin to worry about how they will pay the college education bills. A tuition-reimbursement program or tuition reduction program is very motivational to parents of college age children. It has the added benefit of getting the children to look favorably upon the company—and to perhaps later consider working for the company. Employees in their fifties are often most concerned about health care and retirement issues. Offering a full 100% medical reimbursement program is highly motivational to these people.

In addition, we have found that one of the greatest ways of insuring the loyalty of your senior high performers is to offer an enhanced retirement program.   Even if a competitive company offers a greater salary than you offer, if your retirement program is superior, your older star performers are likely to stay with you.

Many of the incentive tips we have provided in this article are most easily implemented by medium-sized to larger companies. We’d like to also share a most-powerful motivator that is actually easier to implement by smaller companies than larger ones.   This incentive is stock options. We recently began working with a small, hip clothing manufacturer. They were trying to recruit and then motivate a highly-successful industry veteran who “had it all.” This small company couldn’t nearly match the salary and benefits offered by larger companies. However, it offered 3% of its stock to the man who would be their vice president of sales. It worked. The stock options lured the man with the brains and experience they needed. And, since the stock is vested over a three year period, it virtually guarantees loyalty.

A final tip: before implementing any incentive or motivational program, run it past your corporate attorney. You will want to make sure it is fair and nondiscriminatory. Once you’ve gotten the go-ahead, put it into action. You will find that with some creative thinking and attention to individual needs, you can motivate and inspire loyalty even in those top performers who “have it all.”


Dr. Donald Moine is an Organizational Psychologist with Association for Human Achievement in Palos Verdes, California. He is a sales consultant and a frequent speaker at incentive and motivational meetings. Robert G. Torrie is a sales superstar who “had it all.” He is now Vice President of Training and Recruitment for a major subsidiary of a Fortune 500 company.


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