This article was originally published on Forbes.com on April 10, 2018.
What is a high performer? What makes them shine so bright? Scour the research and you’ll find a common idea — a high performer is someone who consistently succeeds beyond expectations. A McKinsey study found that high performers in operations increase productivity by 40%, in management increase profits by 49% and in sales are responsible for 67% more revenue.
Results like those put pressure on leaders to retain high performers. Higher compensation seems like the obvious solution. That may work for some organizations, but renowned author Marshall Goldsmith found most are constrained when it comes to pay differentiation and usually only do so by 5% to 10%. Organizations then turn to other ways to recognize high performers. And that’s where the trouble starts.
Implicit in every definition of high performer is the idea that some people are high performers, and others are not. That’s problematic because sustained success comes from high performing teams, not individual high performers. Yet managers often shine a spotlight on high performers in ways that tear at the very fabric that binds a team together.
The reality is some people are high performers. That doesn’t mean others are not. That means others are not yet. Giving high performers the spotlight can serve as an incentive that inspires others to follow in their footsteps. It can also create misunderstanding and resentment. You want to reward your high performers without relegating your up-and-comers to second class status. Identifying what to hold constant across all team members and when to differentiate for high performers is key to creating a powerful team.
There are three areas where high performers are often given preference but should be treated no different than anyone else.
Expectations of behavior: It should be a given that high performance is never an excuse for egregious misbehavior. That’s the baseline. But neither should high performers be allowed to shrug off team norms, operate in a bubble or behave counter to organizational values. These are all areas managers will turn a blind eye to because of strong performance. Avoid this tendency by redefining “high performer.” A high performer can’t just do better than others, they must also bring out the best in others. Everyone — high performer or otherwise — must be defined by how well they strengthen the team culture.
Opportunities to learn: Providing professional development is a way to demonstrate your investment in high performers. This type of access though, should be available to everyone because it highlights the value of learning. Interestingly, when you provide those opportunities to everyone, not everyone takes advantage of them. High performers, though, are more likely to. That’s part of what makes them strong. Up-and-comers may struggle balancing work and learning opportunities. That’s okay. Finding that balance is part of their growth. Encourage them to figure it out and believe that they will.
Public recognition: The problem with lavishing public recognition primarily on high performers is you’ll miss talented people who are doing great work, just less consistently. High performers stand out because of their endurance and dependability. They deliver high quality, day in and day out. But great work, consistent or not, should always be recognized. Providing equally as much recognition to up-and-comers helps them define what their own high performance looks like. That positive reinforcement helps them build the stamina they’ll need to become high performers.
While high performers should not get special treatment, you do have to treat them different, because they are different. This distinction is important in the three areas.
Challenges: High performers are often tapped to take on challenging projects. Up-and-comers should also be given challenges. Since their skill levels aren’t the same, differentiate by type of challenge. Up-and-comers should be given challenges defined by constrained resources, multiple moving parts or varied work streams. This builds their ability to work faster, smarter or more efficiently. High performers are usually developed in these areas, so give them challenges that specifically require them to drive change. Implementing change is high risk, high return and incredibly complex — perfect for developing your high performers.
Feedback: Give feedback to everyone. That’s a hallmark of strong leadership. Up-and-comers, however, don’t always accurately identify their own gaps. You likely have the best sense of the work and what’s required of them to get better. For them, prioritize the feedback you’ve identified. High performers are different. It is often hard to find significant areas for improvement. So, ask them to identify where they need to get stronger. Having them self-assess before providing your perspective gives you a broader range of improvement areas. As your up-and-comers improve their professional self-awareness, feel free to shift control toward them as well.
People management: Odds are you’ll want to promote your high performing individual contributors into managerial positions. But they don’t always turn into high performing managers. Get ahead of this by prioritizing them for opportunities to practice managing others. Let your high performers manage summer interns or temps, lead internal committees or manage cross-functional projects. Don’t feel guilty about not doing the same for up-and-comers, they still have room to grow as individual contributors. Your high performers need a different type of growth. Providing management practice lets you develop and assess their skills before placing them in a permanent role with less room for error.
Some people are better at some things than others. We can agree on that. But no one is born better. So, what is a high performer? A high performer is a person who’s been given the opportunity to become better. Your job is not to retain high performers. Your job is to give opportunity and build a high performing team.
By building that team, you raise the odds of retaining your high performers because they’ll know they are part of something special. And if they leave, you won’t have to look outside to find the next shiny person. Instead, you’ll look inward at the bright people you’ve polished along the way.