Managing top performers can be a challenge. Great leaders don’t treat everybody equally but they also make sure top performers are not delivering results at the expense of the team. In preparation for writing this article I asked members of the Impact Makers’ leadership team to share their ideas about managing top performers. Carl Miller, Andy Savage, Kate Foster, and Ken Berry contributed input to this article. I could have written much more with all they provided. Instead I chose to take their recurring themes and keep this post close to the usual length.
Identify Your Top Performers
While identifying your top performers may seem obvious the effort requires more than looking at short-term productivity. A true top performer is one who consistently produces results without wreaking havoc upon the rest of their team. The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, coming from nowhere to beat the Soviets and winning the gold medal, serves as a great example because the makeup of the team enabled its success. Herb Brooks, the head coach, cut hot shot players more concerned about their own success than the team’s. When Brooks finalized his roster the press berated him for rejecting some of the countries “best” amateur players in favor of many who were not individual standouts. Brooks realized a team supporting each other and working together stood a better chance of winning than a team made up of super stars chasing individual glory.
Coach Your Top Performers
When indentifying your star performers think about those people who consistently deliver results, embrace change, help their teammates, challenge the status quo, and are always looking for solutions to problems. Rather than manage, you need to coach your top performers to exploit their talents for the benefit of the organization. You can do this by supporting, challenging, involving, learning from, and leveraging your super stars.
Support Your Top Performers
As a leader your time is valuable and limited. Make sure you devote a good deal of it to your top performers. Assuming you don’t need to spend time with them because of their achievements is a common mistake. Fail to invest time with your top performers and you risk frustrating them or making them feel undervalued.
You can best support your top performers by understanding their goals and what motivates them. For some simple recognition will keep them going much longer than you might imagine. Others will strive to solve problems or advance a cause. Ask yourself how you can help meet their needs and assist them in achieving their goals and your efforts will be appreciated and rewarded.
During your discussions with top performers try to understand what holds them back. Just because they are productive doesn’t mean they’re working at their full potential. What obstacles can you remove or help them navigate to further improve results? Sometimes it can be as simple as handling a political situation for them or realigning your team so they work more frequently with people who compliment their skills. No matter how productive a top performer is, they are all human and they all have weaknesses. Can you pair them with somebody who will handle the activities they are not good at or are not interested in performing?
Keep Top Performers Challenged
Highly productive people thrive on challenges as long as the challenges are realistic. Don’t ask your top performers to produce miracles but push them appropriately. Encourage them to take risks. Top performers are more comfortable with risk than your less productive team members but you need to support them by rewarding their efforts, not just their results. Basic economic theory states rewards are associated with risks. Too often people are measured only on their short-term results. Realize failures create learning opportunities and reward people for taking calculated risks. By doing so your team is empowered to challenge the status quo in pursuit of improved results.
Involve Top Performers
Involve your star performers in many aspects of your business. This will send top performers a clear message you value their thoughts, experience, and judgment. You’ll need to adapt the ways you involve them based on what you learn about their goals and motivations but here are some ideas. Get top performers more involved in making organizational decisions, networking, risk management, and institutional learning.
You may not always want top performers making critical decisions but at least get them involved in the decision making process. Have them contribute ideas on solving problems and shaping your team’s strategy. Provide them with opportunities to network; get them involved with other departments, clients, or strategic partners. Have them help identify your team’s key risks and develop mitigation strategies. Finally, give them the tools they need to continue learning. Send them to training and conferences or sponsor their participation in trade associations.
Learn from Top Performers
Your top performers have something to teach you and your team. They may not be able to explain exactly what they do differently but they are doing something differently. Studies have found in nearly any problem set the results can be dramatically improved by focusing on two or three behaviors demonstrated by top performers and not exhibited by others. Have your super stars explain why they think they are more successful than their peers. Observe what they do. Ask a middle tier performer to shadow a star performer and report what they learn from the experience.
Your top performers can also point out the restraints on their productivity. They can easily identify policies, procedures, and tools that limit their efficiencies, their ability to produce, or their motivation. One example of a limiting policy is placing caps on commission. Why would any company stop rewarding results when productivity reaches an arbitrary threshold? While commission caps are an obvious example there are limiting factors which are more difficult for leaders to spot. Your top producers already know what they are, so ask them.
Leverage Top Performers
Find ways the rest of your team can emulate the differentiating behaviors of your top performers. However you do it, understand what drives the results of your top performers and teach the rest of your team to apply their behaviors. A great way to do this is asking your top performers to mentor others who would benefit from their leadership.
Eventually your top performers will move to other roles within your organization. They will expect and appreciate the opportunity and the broader organization will benefit. If you don’t provide career growth opportunities they will find them elsewhere. As tempting as it can be to hang onto top performers indefinitely, you simply cannot. If you’ve learned from them and spread their knowledge throughout your team you will be happy when they receive the advancement they deserve rather than perceiving it as a blow to your team.
Coaching top performers can be challenging and wonderful. As leaders it is our role to move more of our team into position to be treated as top performers. Recognizing the strengths and skills your individual team members bring to the group will help you find ways to get people more involved in the activities they are most passionate about pursuing. When a leader can fine tune their team roles to best align with individual goals and interests it becomes that much easier to start treating each individual as a star.