Do you have an exceptional performer on your team — a person who stands head and shoulders above everyone else? If you do, it can be a wonderful gift for a manager to have an employee whom you can count on to get the right results; who thinks about what else needs to be done without being told; who doesn't need to be pushed or motivated; who is always asking to do more.
Unfortunately many managers don't know how to deal with such exceptional employees. They often unintentionally dampen their star performance or cause them to find better opportunities elsewhere. I've seen many cases where, instead of leveraging top talent, the manager has quietly suggested that the employee "slow down" or "do more research" or "wait for the right time" or "keep those ideas to yourself for now." I've even seen managers allow their teams to ostracize or marginalize the top performer so that other people won't "feel bad."
What's behind this kind of counter-productive behavior? Let's start with two possible reasons for these seemingly irrational actions:
The first is lack of self-confidence. Some managers, instead of being grateful for a top-notch employee, feel threatened when a subordinate is more capable, more energetic, or smarter than they are. Particularly for managers whose self-image is to be "in charge," a high performer triggers tremendous anxiety. How can I be the boss if one of my reports is more capable of getting things done? What will happen to my authority if subordinates go to someone else for help and advice? What will my boss think if one of my team members is the one who knows all the answers? Based on these concerns, the insecure manager might overexert authority, demean the high performer's contributions, or even take credit for much of the high performer's work.
The second reason for not leveraging a highly talented person is lack of imagination. Sometimes managers simply don't know what to do with an exceptional performer. When a subordinate finishes a first assignment quickly, the unimaginative manager often is at a loss for a next assignment. So the high performer ends up doing busy work, helping someone else who may not need it, or creating a new project alone. When the high performer is an entrepreneurial self-starter this pattern may be all right. But more often the exceptional person isn't challenged sufficiently — and the organization doesn't receive the full benefit of his or her capabilities.
Naturally insecure or unimaginative managers don't attract or keep great talent, which diminishes their team's ability to get results. So if you think that you might unconsciously be exhibiting these behaviors, and would like to better leverage your best people, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
- Remember that hiring and developing people who are smarter than you is one of the best decisions a manager can make. The more talent you have on your team, the higher your performance. There is no substitute for an A-team.
- Once you have really good people, take advantage of them. Stretch them. Challenge them. Find out what they are good at — and what they need to learn. Craft assignments that will take them to the next level.
- Give your best people credit and visibility. Let others know what they are doing. Remember that they are corporate assets and not just members of your team.
- Be willing to let your best people go to new opportunities if it makes sense for their development and learning. Don't push them to leave before they have made a real contribution, but don't needlessly hold on to them either.
By following these guidelines you'll eventually develop a reputation as a talent developer, which means that you will be multiplying your contribution to the organization many times over. Gifted people will be beating down the doors to work for you — and you'll always have a team around you that can deliver.
What's your experience with managing exceptional performers?