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Leading High Performers - Main

High performers are a blessing for every leader. They do what you ask them to do.

Then they often do more than what you ask of them.

They can work well independently, and they don’t need you to oversee everything. This means you can get on with your own job of leading the team.

Yes, high performers are often a great comfort to leaders, because they’re committed and reliable. They have your back, so you don’t feel like you’re going it alone.

The Challenge of Leading High Performers

However, it’s not always easy to lead a top performer. You can’t just leave them to do their own thing. They need attention, just like a plant in your garden.

Neglect them, and they will no longer keep the same standards. They’ll wither and die (the plant, that is).

Get too involved, and they may feel stifled and cramped.

There are a few characteristics of high performers that you need to pay attention to:

  • Aspirations. Usually a top performer wants to make progress, not just sit in one spot.
  • Respect. High performers know what they bring to the table. They need to feel valued.
  • Continual learning. To achieve their goals, top performers want to keep learning. You need to keep things interesting.

With these three aspects in mind, let’s take a look at some good ways to lead your high performers, so they can do their best work.

Learn More:  Meaningful Work, the #1 Motivator (and How to Provide it in Your Team).

First, Let’s Get Your Mindset Right

Instead of jumping right into focusing on your top performers, let’s start with you first.

It’s hard to lead other people when you aren’t leading yourself well. This goes double for leading your high performers!

Feeling insecureLeading high performers can be intimidating, because they’re looking to push the standards.

It’s important for you to be able to lead them without ego, fear or insecurity.

If you’re anything like me, you might notice some annoying thoughts enter your mind when you’re leading high performers.

“They might be better at leading this team than I am.”

“They have higher standards than I do and they push harder.”

“I hope they don’t leave. Then I’ll be left with only the average people!”

“I hope they don’t point out anything that I might be doing wrong.”

I find that these thoughts are natural. But if you let them get the better of you, they can cause issues.

Learn More:  Are You an Insecure Leader? Watch for These 10 Signs.

Be Alert and Don’t Let Your Instincts Take Over

Leaders who are low on confidence can fall prey to bad leadership behaviour, even if they aren’t bad leaders. I find this is often driven by insecurity.

If you feel threatened by your high performers, you may find yourself trying to show them who’s boss. You may ignore their suggestions or be more critical of their work to put them in their place.

Some leaders may even deny their high performers opportunities, so that they don’t rise too high, and outshine them.

When you notice insecure thoughts creeping into your mind, it’s important to show restraint. To not give in to your base instincts.

Instead, try to keep calm and focus on some of the following strategies.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #151: Low on Confidence? Let’s Tackle the Root Cause.

1. Understand Their Aspirations

It’s hard to provide high performers with a development pathway if you don’t know where they want to go. Often the best way to find out what they want to do is to have a conversation.

Goals aren't aligned to meet your expectationsSome leaders shy away from this, because they might find out that their high performer wants to do something that will take them away from the team.

Ignorance is not bliss. It’s better to know what your people want, than put your head in the sand.

If your high performer doesn’t know what they want, then help them try new things. Try to provide them with a variety of opportunities and experiences to get a taste.

It might take more than one conversation, but over time you can develop a vision for the future that you can help them reach.

Learn More:  Are Your People Feeling Unfulfilled at Work? Try This.

2. Stretch Your High Performers

Your top performers will inevitably become bored if they aren’t growing and developing.

While it’s quite common for a high performer to eventually leave a team for better opportunity, you don’t want this to happen prematurely.

The solution is to provide them with opportunities that stretch them. That force them a little out of their comfort zone and allow them to use new skills, and further develop existing ones.

You’ll need to balance the workload, so that they are able to deliver high quality work in their core role, while developing their skills with new stretch opportunities.

Comfort Zone - High Performers

This helps to stop a top performer from becoming overwhelmed. Instead of being thrown completely in the deep end, you can balance familiar confidence-sustaining work with newer, potentially daunting opportunities.

Side projects and team improvements are often perfect for providing this stretch.

Just remember that sometimes what you consider to be a great skill or development opportunity may be perceived differently by your people.

Don’t tell your high performers what they should be enthusiastic about – ask them. Tell them why you think a stretch opportunity is good for them, then see whether they agree.

Learn More:  Risk & Reward: How to Provide Development Opportunities For Your Team.

Let Your High Performers Lead Something

As part of this stretching, see if you can provide your high performers with opportunities to lead. Make sure they know they are accountable and tell their colleagues about this delegated authority.

Your top performers may not want to be people leaders, but they may want to lead key initiatives related to their role. They may also like to lead a technical aspect of the work that 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.

Try to hold them accountable so they feel personally responsible for the outcomes.

Learn More:  Team Accountability Builder Online Course.

3. Provide Performance Feedback

I once worked with a leader who complained that their top performers “always want to talk about their performance”.

That’s true. They do.

Leader giving feedback about behaviour issuesIs it better that they never want to discuss their performance?

Rather than an annoyance, this should be considered as a positive. High performers often want feedback and a development plan.

A development plan helps them to feel as if they are going 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 or hold people accountable for it, it’s worthless.

Work with your high performing team members to develop the plan. Incorporate goals that develop key skills and experiences that they care about, ensuring that the goals are also relevant to the team and to their role.

Learn More:  10 Simple & Effective Tips For Giving Feedback.

4. Take Input and Keep Your High Performers Informed

High performers like to be kept in the loop. They like to understand what’s going on.

They recognise that they are more skilled than some of their peers and often feel entitled to explanations for decisions that affect them and the team. This can feel threatening to some leaders, who don’t like having to explain themselves.

good communication skills

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. However, you might need to make it clear that it’s your decision to make, not theirs.

On the other hand, it’s important to value their feedback. Listen to their input and try to use it where you can. This will help them feel like a valued part of the team.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #29: 5 Questions to Ask an Unmotivated Team Member.

5. Reward Your High 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 all the time. You need to find other ways to provide rewards that are valued by your high performers.

Some leaders tend to shy away from individual rewards, instead opting for team-based rewards.

We may reward the project team, for example, when they complete a project successfully. Unfortunately, this only really works if the whole team is working equally well.

Even the smallest sense that somebody is not pulling their weight will put your top performers offside. They will begin to see that mediocrity is being rewarded and start to become disengaged.

What Rewards Can You Provide?

There are many rewards you can offer that don’t need to cost much. These include:

  • Training. Online or in-person training can be a useful way to reward a high performer while keeping them learning. Let them use their new skills to improve the team.
  • Leadership opportunities. Providing a high performer with opportunities to lead initiatives can keep them motivated and help them feel as if they are progressing.
  • Recognition. Publicly recognising a job well done is a powerful way to reward a top performer. I have led several high performers who simply wanted to be acknowledged in front of their peers.
  • Mentoring. Finding a suitable mentor for your star performer can be a great reward. Better yet, mentoring is usually voluntary and it doesn’t need to cost anything!

Get creative. A conversation with your high performer might be a useful way to find out what types of rewards they would value most, even if money and resources are tight.

High performers can be challenging to lead. However, being able to help a high achiever get to where they want to go is one of the most satisfying parts of leadership.

The thoughtful leaders of today play a key role in developing the thoughtful leaders of tomorrow.

How do you keep your high performers engaged? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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