Your top performers will set the benchmark for how you lead your team. Top performers can actually be the most challenging people to lead, because they want to be the best.
Other team members may sit back and just do their job without much of a fuss. Your top performers will want to be challenged and to be learning constantly. Top performers understand that if they aren’t growing, they’re falling behind.
If you don’t retain your top performers, you will fall behind too. Note that this doesn’t apply only to line managers. If you lead projects or use the services of other teams in your organisation, you need to take care of the top performers there, too.
Provide top performers with variety
Varying the tasks that you give your high performers will go a long way in keeping them happy. While some people are happy doing the same thing every day, many top performers will not be.
The only caution here is to ensure that while providing variety, you need to ensure that your best people are still doing work relevant to their job description. If you get your best people to work on tasks that aren’t really within their chosen role, they may become disengaged.
While skill variety in a role is positive, the skills must still be relevant. If the variety is so broad so as not to contribute to the employee’s desired skillset, then it will be seen as wasted effort. It’s like being provided with training for skills that you never use. It’s pointless.
Review the performance of your top performers
I worked with a leader in the past who lamented that their top performers “always want to talk about their performance”. That’s true. They do. Would you rather they never wanted to discuss their performance?
Rather than an annoyance, this should be considered as a positive. Some leaders don’t like it because it makes them work (imagine that?). Top performers often want feedback and a development plan. A development plan helps them to feel as if they are getting somewhere. Without it, they are never quite sure if they are going in the right direction.
However, a development plan is only useful if it means something. If you have a plan, but never review it or hold people accountable for it, it’s pointless. Work with your high performing team members to develop the plan. Incorporate goals that develop key skills and experiences that they care about. The goals should also be relevant to the team and to their role.
Remember that sometimes what you consider to be a great skill or development opportunity may be perceived differently by your team. Don’t tell your team what they should be enthusiastic about, ask them. Tell them why you think a development opportunity or goal is good for them, then see whether they agree.
Explain the reasons behind key decisions
Top performers like to be kept in the loop. To understand what’s going on. They recognise that they are more skilled than many of their peers and feel entitled to explanations for decisions that affect them and the team. This can be threatening to some leaders, who don’t like explaining themselves.
All that’s really required is honesty and transparency. If your high performers are unhappy about a decision, explain why it was made. Keeping them in the dark will erode trust and have them questioning your leadership.
At the same time, you can’t coddle your top performers to the point where they are running the team. Explain your decisions, sure. But make it clear that it’s your decision to make, not theirs.
Let your top performers lead something
Provide your high performers with opportunities to lead parts of projects or functions of your team. Make sure they know they are accountable for it and tell their colleagues about the delegated authority.
Your top performers may not want to be people leaders, but they may want to lead key initiatives related to their role. Or they may like to lead a technical aspect of the work your team performs.
If you do delegate leadership in this way, make sure it’s real. Don’t pretend they are leading and then overrule everything they do. Hold them accountable so they feel personally responsible for the outcomes.
Reward your top performers
I haven’t worked in many organisations where there is an abundance of money to throw around. As a result, you usually can’t give everyone pay rises or bonuses. You need to find other ways to provide rewards that are valued by your top performers.
Some leaders tend to shy away from individual rewards, instead opting for team-based rewards. Reward the project team, for example, when they complete the project successfully. Unfortunately, this only really works if it is perceived that the whole team are working equally well.
Even the most minor sense that somebody is not pulling their weight and being rewarded for it will put your top performers offside. They will begin to see that mediocrity is being awarded and become disengaged.
There are many rewards you can offer that do not cost overly much. Training, learning, leadership opportunities and recognition are some simple ways to reward top performers even when money is tight.
Recognition is a surprisingly powerful reward. I have worked with several high performers who simply wanted to be acknowledged as having done a job well done, in front of their peers. It made them feel valued and respected. Treating everyone in your team equally and avoiding public recognition of the strong contributions of your top performers, will make them feel as if they aren’t valued.
Have you ever been having a bad day and then had somebody give you an unexpected compliment? “Hey you did a great job with that presentation.” Praise can make people feel fantastic.
Give your top performers the credit
There are leaders out there who take the credit for other people’s work. Top performers are most at risk because they do great work. However, some leaders are afraid of alienating their standard performers by heaping too much praise on their best team members.
This can result in nobody getting credit for the work performed. Then by default, the leader of the team takes the credit. This tends to alienate the people who really did the work.
Giving credit isn’t something to be afraid of. Just because you give credit, doesn’t mean you are not as valuable as your top performing team members. You create the conditions for that great work to happen and provide guidance, so your role is valuable too.
You don’t want your top performers running out the door. They need to be engaged, challenged and rewarded. Failing to do so will result in your top performers leaving and your average performers staying.
Don’t shy away from treating your high performing team members well for fear of upsetting others. Remember, turnover is your friend, but only if it’s not always your best players.