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November 5, 2019

Steering High Performers

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I get a decent number of emails every week tied to a friend or client asking my point of view on something. Sometimes I have a quick answer. Other times, I ponder it for a bit, research a little, and then fashion a reply. In most cases I end with “hope this helps.”

I had one of these moments recently. A CEO client reached out about managing a high achieving member of his team. The question went something like this, “She moves so fast, I can’t stay ahead of her. I know she needs me to lead her and manage her, but she doesn’t come to me and say, ‘You’re the boss. Tell me what to do.’ “

Short universal version: “How do I tailor my management style to the specific needs and capabilities of a really high-achieving super performer?”

Maybe you’ve got someone like this on your team. Fast-moving, highly capable. You can’t manage this person using the same toolbox you use for everybody else. The term I use for leading and managing this type of person is steering.

I’ve written elsewhere about the mistakes we often make in managing high performers. Here, I’m going to put it in the positive. Instead of mistakes to avoid, these are things to do working with high performers.

Here is essentially the email I sent my CEO friend. (In full disclosure, my emails don’t normally include quotes from George Barnard Shaw. But it’s close to the original.)

How do you steer a high performer?

  1. It’s easy to think assertive, hyper-confident people don’t want any leadership or oversight. Don’t believe it. They must be led/managed, and they actually appreciate good leadership < https://hbr.org/2014/11/what-high-performers-want-at-work> when it is confident, visionary, and empowering. They might not ask for oversight, but they want it.
  2. But if you over-manage high performers, you will either: 1) go crazy trying to stay in front of them; or 2) not get their best efforts. And possibly both.
  3. You have to be direct, honest, and specific with guidance. There are no generalities, no halfway conversations with this person. Don’t assume they’ll read your inferences on what needs to be done. As George Barnard Shaw said, “The single greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” For example, if you care strongly about particular steps in a project, don’t assume they know that. They are confident enough to operate with just the end in mind, and you may have multiple priorities in mind along the way that you need to specify.
  4. Give them the benefit of the doubt in questionable intersections. You must trust these folks or you’re toast. If you don’t trust them, replace them…now. If you do trust them, though (and you are clear with your expectations and assignments), let them run. Don’t be insecure and territorial every time they get behind the wheel. Let them hit a curb or two, and they’ll figure it out. You had to do that, and they need to also.
  5. Impress on them the value of team. Make sure they understand their ultimate score card as a team member has many directions and elements. Accomplishing the task is one score. It may be their favorite score, but it’s not the only score. Team spirit and peer respect is also a score. The ability to be managed is another score. So is the ability to delegate and build up a team. Getting the job done is only one score card for the high performer.
  6. Acknowledge their high performance to them and others. Give them some love and limelight. David Novak, the CEO of Yum Brands put it well and simply, “People leave when they don’t feel appreciated.”
  7. Initiate check-ins and get periodic feedback on how things are going. Avoid micromanaging by asking for a status update. But set the rhythm that you want to know along the way how things are progressing. Don’t just sit with your fingers crossed hoping it all works out as intended.
  8. Close the loop after each interface with questions like: Does this make sense? Do you have any questions? Clear on my expectations? How can I help you succeed? What are you concerned about with this project?
  9. After the assignment or project, give them post-work feedback and a score. This practice helps to establish roles and helps them know what you are thinking and prioritize for next time. High performers must be reminded that you are the boss, and this is an easy way to reinforce that.
  10. Make sure you don’t overwork yourself trying to manage and lead a high performer.  They can be draining and demanding. Stay healthy and model overall health to them. That actually is something most high performers really need you to do.
  11. Don’t let them be destructive, counterculture, or too unruly just because they perform well. If they refuse to take instruction or demand to run things entirely their own way, their production isn’t worth the effect on organizational health.
  12. Coach them up or coach them out.

Hope this helps.

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