Managing High Performers

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Following up from the last article about managing low performers, this time I will talk about the other side of the coin, high performers. But first, we need to understand what they are.

  • They maintain a positive attitude at all times, focused on what they can do. They believe that through hard work and persistence they can achieve anything. Therefore, they have a strong long-term focus and self-discipline.

  • They are inspiring to others, and display natural leadership qualities. Other people will rally around them.

  • They care about growth, always eager to learn new skills and sharpen existing ones. They learn from mistakes too. As a result, they usually find innovative solutions to challenging problems, and are flexible and adaptable.

  • They are problem solvers, and get things done. It’s almost as if they lived to accomplish the most challenging tasks.

  • They are self-driven. With little or no external motivation they can and will deliver.

Below you can find some tips to manage those of your employees that fit into this category.

Be ready to give constructive feedback, regularly

High performers are always looking to improve, and getting constructive feedback on a regular basis is a key part of this process. Use your 1:1s to maximise the impact of your feedback, and avoid using them as status updates (remember that 1:1s should be mainly about removing blockers and aligning priorities).

They will expect you to help them identify areas for improvement more than anything else, although do not forget to add praise and thanks as well, even if they seem indifferent to it. Monthly is acceptable, but if you can do it more often, even better. Weekly would be ideal, and it will allow some flexibility in case you need to skip it once in a while.

Help them learn, inside and outside the organisation

High performers seek feedback not only from you and their peers, but also outside the organisation. It’s not uncommon for them to attend conferences and meetups, and be part of side project teams (e.g. open source projects). Help them by introducing them to some of these external groups, particularly if you are more experienced in the same field. You’ll be able to help them separate the wheat from the chaff.

Support them with budget for training, conferences, online courses… they are eager for knowledge and it’s in your hand to find the resources.

And, why not? Go with them. Leading by example is paramount in order to build trust.

Agree on clear goals and align expectations

Goals should be agreed by both parties. You will need to make these very clear. Small and measurable objectives that are time-bounded work like a charm. There are many frameworks about this topic e.g. SMART goals, OKRs… Ultimately choose what works for you, your team and your organisation. A good goal has crystal clear deliverables, require a bit of “stretching” from the employee and are linked to high level initiatives.

Give them the tools they need

As a manager, you should set the strategy, provide the direction and give your people the tools they need to succeed in terms of people, budget, training, software… If you don’t, you will be adding blockers instead of removing them.

Get out of their way

One you set up goals and expectations, give them flexibility in how they work. Avoid micromanaging at all costs. On the contrary, give them autonomy with minimum interference.

Also, encourage them to decompress. Working long hours and sacrificing their own well-being, although it might make them meet a deadline, it will be detrimental to their productivity and performance in the long run. Those who manage high performers need to gently remind them to pace themselves and think about their contributions on a larger scale. They cannot work at an optimal level if they’re perpetually burned out and exhausted.

Keep It Interesting

High achievers place a great importance on interesting and challenging work. I have noticed this in my own teams very often. If you want proof, use the Moving Motivators technique and you’ll see how they crave for interesting things to do, tools to try and new problems to tackle.

This is especially important if there are limited opportunities for advancement in your organisation.

Another option to make it interesting it by identifying ways for them to expand their skillset, e.g. shadowing programs or a temporary reallocation to a different team.

Overall, make sure they are being challenged, but pay attention to the right balance between pressure and performance.

Provide opportunities for growth

Growth can come from things we have mentioned already like online courses, working on part time projects or getting certified in some particular area.

Make sure you give them visibility, so that their growth is noticed outside your own team as well. Provide them with mentors when possible.

Ultimately, remember that the lack of growth opportunities can be particularly frustrating for high performers and is often the reason why they look for opportunities elsewhere.

Surround them with other top players

One of the best ways to keep top people motivated is to surround them with other top players, so that they can learn from them and improve the overall success of the team.

It makes also sense to get them involved in recruitment, because high performers identify high performers quite easily. They will have a say in hiring someone they actually want to work with. Have in mind that in order to increase your chances to attract high performers you must invest in your own employer brand, e.g. by running a technical blog or giving back to the community.

Design a career path for them

Create a career path within the organisation with different levels of seniority and multiple options for specialisation. Make them responsible when you feel they are ready and then reward them. Little by little they can have greater involvement in planning and decision making, gaining more exposure at a more senior level.

Create a safe environment that embraces failure

Everybody makes mistakes, it’s part of the human condition. You should account for it, and have the mechanisms in place that will make it acceptable to fail sometimes. Even if a deadline is missed, it shouldn’t be the end of the world. Remind your employees that you are running a marathon, not a sprint.

Ironically, the more others celebrate a high achiever’s successes, the more afraid they can become of making mistakes. This causes them to shy away from risky challenges. You should help high achievers overcome this fear of failure as well.

Remember your other employees

High performers can positively motivate others on your team but they can do quite the opposite as well. A good leader must defend the team, even if it means cutting a high performer.

Have in mind that high performers are usually perfectionists and quite independent, which means they could run out of patience if paired with other employees.

Also, sometimes they might think that results justify binding the rules a little, and this can cause friction and more issues. In some ways, it’s understandable that their manager overlooks some of those shortcuts as long as they keep turning in record-breaking achievements, but it doesn’t help them to be perceived as team players.

As a manager, help them understand that by embracing the protocol, they can send the message that they don’t see themselves as exempt and privileged, and that ultimately, we are all on the same team.

Accept that sooner or later they might move on

Finally, no matter how much growth opportunities you put in place, how engaging and interesting the work feels or how great the environment is, at some point they will most likely leave. This is normal and expected. Just remember not to put all your eggs in one basket. Avoid single points of failure (something is known by only one person), favour knowledge transfer and cross-functionality, design effective hand-over procedures and manage the expectations of the rest of the team once your rock star is gone.

If you follow these tips, you will have a great process in place that will help you find high performers and keep them in your team for quite a long time.

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