Six common mistakes in leading high performers

Drake Editorial Team

High performers are those people we often describe as driven. In their mind, a job is a problem to be solved, and they have the ability to solve it. Dr. A.P. Gouthey, a Presbyterian evangelist from Seattle, Washington, described high performers as those who “snatch success from seeming failure”. Yousuf Karsh, the internationally acclaimed photographer, said that high performers have “an immense belief in themselves and in their mission”.

British explorer George Mallory was a high performer. When asked “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?”, he replied, “Because it’s there.” Mallory had the three characteristics of a high performer:

  • Inborn initiative: He saw a job and was simply drawn to complete it, to win.
  • Positive perseverance: He was not going to tire or quit easily.
  • Superb skill: He was no dumb worker ant, but rather a quick learner who could handle complex tasks.

Bill Gates said, “The key for us, number one, has always been hiring very smart people.” Your business isn’t just shaped by people, it is people. If you want to be an innovative company, you need innovative people. If you want a flexible company, you need flexible people. If you want a high-performing company, you need high performers.

The three types of employees are underachievers, achievers, and overachievers. Underachievers are quickly out of a job. Achievers have job security but no chance of promotion. Overachievers exceed expectations and can move up, but require superb management. Don’t be fooled, though, the opposite of an overachiever is not the underachiever, but the achiever. Our world is so results driven that the underachievers are a complete non-issue. They’re not a choice for you. Your choice is between the achiever and the overachiever.

So why do so many companies use achievers instead of overachievers, and adequate performers instead of high performers? First, sometimes we simply don’t know how to effectively manage high performers; and second, our skittish view of high performers sometimes makes us avoid them.

How do you identify high performers? If you look at a résumé and see that someone has consistently excelled, you have a high performer. Look for quick learners and for those who ask good questions. High performers know the questions worth asking.

In some cases, however, managers see high performers and avoid them. Some managers who want the spotlight avoid a high performer who might take it, totally ignoring Andrew Carnegie's advice: “No person will make a great business who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit.” Other managers are simply lazy, wanting the predictability that comes from knowing that the reports will be filed every Friday. They want achievers and not overachievers, who keep pushing for more, and these managers don’t want to get pushed. And the company becomes stagnant before you know it.

High performers can be difficult to manage, but there’s a reason they’re called high performers. In theory, high performers are great for the business, but in practice, the benefits can be lost amidst the stress, headaches, and complications. The good news is you have high performers. The challenge is few of us have had specific training in managing high performers.

Most of us have had high performers under our stewardship at one time or another, and managing them doesn’t come easily or automatically. I have identified the six most common mistakes I have made or observed in working with senior leaders, business owners, and entrepreneurs over the past 25 years, and I offer solutions

1. High performers need more than busy work.Busy work won’t do it in today’s competitive market. Work must be productive, efficient, and effective. The most effective managing you can do is to ensure your high performers are useful and productive. High performers need their work to challenge them because problem solving is a jolt of adrenaline to them. That’s when you see their best effort. Stick them with busy work, and you’re not going to get their best effort.

As a manager of high performers, it’s your job to differentiate between the critical and the non-critical. It is essential to point out the critical issues to high performers because these people are driven. Plus, if they have the wrong issue in mind, they will go full speed in the wrong direction. They’ll do a great job, but it will be the wrong job.

As a manager, how do you distinguish between the critical and non-critical issues? Always look for the most strategic questions surrounding any situation—the more strategic the better. What will shape your organization five, ten, fifty years down the road? Maybe you need to reconsider some core values. Maybe you need to firm up support from your clients. Maybe you need a new location. Maybe you haven’t considered what challenges you’ll face from competitors or changes in the market in a few years.

Sometimes it’s obvious. When you’re in the midst of a Class V hurricane that can cause severe damage, you don’t pass it off as routine. A possible merger, plummeting sales, a new launch—these are critical issues. Sometimes high performers need someone to remind them what the action steps are that will create leverage and momentum. Point your high performers to the critical issues and let them run.

2. High performers often struggle with delegation.We often think of delegating as a way to get out of work. But true delegation is actually a common-sense strategy to maximize your effectiveness. Break your work into parts and give specific work to specific people. The key word is specific. Delegation requires painting a clear target, not to mention the right one. Your high performers need to know exactly what the assignment is or else. A mist in the manager’s mind creates a fog in the organization.

Two pitfalls in delegation are magnified when it comes to high performers.

  • No delegation: Take advantage of your high performers. Avoid being tempted to give them busy work and to start thinking that you’re the one necessary to do every little job. You’re not. If you don’t give them work to do, you have no one to blame but yourself when they get nothing done. Give them the highly complex problems they’re capable of solving. Most high performers love taking complete ownership of a task and taking it from start to finish. So give them tasks.
  • Dumping instead of delegating: If problem one is no delegation, problem two is poor delegation, giving your high performers immense amounts of generic work. Instead of saying “Cultivate relationships with potential distributors in the tri-state region”, you say, “We need new people and new areas. And make sure everyone in the department has a complete understanding of how you do it. And cut costs a lot. And. And. And.”

How are you at delegating to your high performers? If your high performers seem to have plenty of idle time but you’re burning the candle at both ends, start delegating more. Give your high performers jobs just a bit beyond their experience and reach. Match their particular skills and passions with specific jobs. Require them to come up with one new project for themselves every so often based on their perception of the organization’s needs.

3. High performers must not be micromanaged.The more attached you are to the job or the organization, the more you will want to micromanage. But look at General George Patton, a high-ranking officer with plenty of high performers under him. In war, the great generals have to take matters into their own hands—right? Yet Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Micromanaging is particularly tempting with high performers because they are exciting to work with. It feels like there’s an opportunity to make huge strides as long as they don’t screw it up. And that “as long as” is the trap. Don’t fall into that trap. Pull a Patton, and give your high performers the opportunity to succeed.

Overmanaging means too much of something. You hang onto too much control, you give too much instruction, and you want too much information. You want to be in on every little decision. You give a high performer a project and stay right beside them every step of the way, offering suggestions and critiques.

And the worst of it is that overmanaging cripples high performers. They do need guidance and feedback, but not every moment of the day. US President Teddy Roosevelt said, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Meddling, or overmanaging, will make your high performers frustrated with you, and will take away their confidence and risk-taking spirit, the very things that make them high performers.

To stop overmanaging, start with hiring high performers. The best people don’t need to be overmanaged. Guided, taught, and led— yes. But not tightly managed. Discipline yourself to meddle less. How often do you offer an unsolicited suggestion? Track yourself for a week or a month and then cut back by a fourth or a third. Learn to walk by a high performer’s desk without asking for an update. Emphasize that you’re available to answer questions, and then back off. As a travel agency ad read, “You need to go away.

4. High performers don’t need complete autonomy.We’ve talked about delegating and about not micromanaging. Cut your high performers loose. Give them the chance to excel. Let them make their own mistakes. However, don’t step out unless you know how and when to step back in. Great management includes knowing when to take charge and when to let go. It is not always sitting back and staying out of the way.

High performers don’t ask too many questions. That’s what makes them great—their inborn initiative. They’re driven to excel and to solve the problem. They won’t be the employees coming back every ten minutes and asking for a new assignment. They just go.

But sometimes they should ask questions. Sometimes problems arise that are beyond their expertise. It could be a simple question like “Where do you want me to send the report?” It could be a huge question like “Will this project really benefit us?” By not asking these questions, the high performer can finish the job incorrectly, waste precious time, or deprive you of an important perspective.

It’s your job to cultivate a relationship with your high performers so that they know to come to you with the right questions. Emphasize that you expect them to have questions. Then, when they have questions, treat them respectfully and answer them fully. With high performers, you don’t have to worry about them becoming too dependent on you, so give them more information rather than less.

In addition, you have to learn how to step back in and navigate critical issues, even when you’re not asked, and step back out before it is too late.

Set up checkpoints for the project beforehand so that you can measure to see if things are progressing as expected. Listen to what the high performer’s peers and subordinates are saying. Watch your high performer’s stress level. In other words, don’t overmanage, but don’t undermanage either.

If you sense that a major problem might be arising, step back in because you are responsible for your high performer’s performance. However, keep your high performer in on the project. Get a full update on the situation—even though they made the mistake, they know the project better than anyone—and assess the damage.

If you can keep the high performer involved in stopping the damage, do it to keep them feeling like part of the solution and not just the problem causer. In all likelihood, you’ll probably have some ruffled feathers (“I would have figured it out”) and it will take time to smooth those feathers. Help the process by giving another chance and by discussing the situation. Don’t let the high performer fume behind your back.

5. High performers need feedback, even if they resist it.High performers, especially those with past success, rarely seek out feedback. They don’t ask questions because they want to solve the problem themselves. They don’t ask for feedback for the same reason. But a manager can compound the problem. We see that they’re working hard, so we don’t tell them anything. We assume they’ll figure out how to improve on their own. They’re confident. They’re tough. They’ll be fine.

Truth is, they’ll only be fine if you give them feedback—specific feedback and strategic feedback.

  • Specific feedback: The more specific the feedback, the better. As a manager, when you know your high performer, you can offer them feedback specific to the way they work. Give specific feedback for individual projects. What specific aspects of the project are done well or need work? Were guidelines followed? Where do they consistently excel or struggle? What are their default modes that need to be changed? Specificity always increases the possibility for lasting change.
  • Strategic feedback: Strategic feedback always has the end goal in mind. It usually involves a more comprehensive scope of the work. The wider view offers the high performer the chance to connect the dots for the next occasion. This turns a feedback session into a learning opportunity for the high performer. And over time, a self-developing environment is one of the most important criteria for a high performer’s sustainability.

Feedback isn’t always great fun, particularly when your high performer made a mistake. How do you tell a high performer they messed up? Whatever you do, don’t avoid necessary negative feedback. As the manager, your job is to find the areas in which they need to grow. Look for their weaknesses and their blind spots in a variety of areas:

  • Job skills: Should your high performer improve her writing, accounting, etc.?
  • Networking: Do they need to meet with a new set of people?
  • Character issues: Is your high performer sacrificing their integrity in any way?
  • Professionalism: Should they work on punctuality or preparation?
  • Relational skills: Could they listen better? Direct more clearly? Interact more casually?

As the manager, you can challenge in soft items or hard items. The issue is often not how you challenge them, but simply that they are challenged. Your high performer needs to be convinced that there is always room for improvement.

6. High performers can take the organization hostage.Assuming you’ve avoided normal performers and chosen high performers, the opposite temptation is to dive in headfirst and overembrace your high performers and revel in their hard work and rejoice in their ingenuity. However, be careful. Before you know it, you’re no longer managing; you’re trapped.

You depend on your high performers so much that you are entirely dependent on their performance. What they say goes. And they can evolve into high-maintenance prima donnas and nightmares to work with. And like the flies in the honey, you’re trapped, and you can’t find a way out. You’ve inadvertently abdicated your managerial throne. And you’ve indicated to the high performers that they, and not the project, are the most important thing. It’s difficult to work with high performers who think they're far more important than you.

So what do you do? Ask two questions to determine whether the high performer is needed.

  • Does this person still make economic sense? Are they helping our bottom line? If yes, then move to the second question.
  • Does this bottom-line bump outweigh the high performer headaches? How destructive are they to the overall team? How draining are they on you as a manager? It might be worth a bottom-line sacrifice to make the team better as a whole by letting the high performer go. You may be surprised: It might even help your bottom line to make the change.

If your high performer is needed, work to free yourself from the handcuffs. It’s not easy, but you have to reassert your authority. Force yourself to take first steps at distributing your dependence outside your high performer. Communicate to your high performer what has to change. Follow through on your demands. Be prepared for painful readjustments. Take command or, better said, take back command.

More solutionsEverybody has to be managed, especially high performers. You don’t have to be perfect. But you have to be willing: willing to lead, to challenge, to be responsible, to be the manager.

  • Be competent: Make it your job to have the answers to your high performer’s questions. Many times, your education and experience will make you competent by default. At all times, stay on top of your field. High performers will learn to look to you as you prove that you have that wisdom, can answer their questions, and demonstrate that you know what you’re doing.
  • Be confident: All people, including high performers, want to work with and follow those who exude confidence. I’m not saying become a dictator, but when you demonstrate that you don’t have doubts about your ability, your high performers won’t have doubts either.
  • Be in control: Don’t shy away from authority. Be firm and clear when you give directions and projects. Remember that with authority comes responsibility. Take responsibility for your high performers. When they make a mistake, don’t blame it on them. Blame it on yourself. High performers will seek out your feedback when they see you want them to excel and are in the battle with them.

The challenge of managing high performers is knowing how to keep your high performers focused and how to challenge them to improve. You have the high performers. All you need is the manager.

Reprinted with the permission of Dr. Stephen R. Graves, founder of Coaching by Cornerstone, who advises executives, business owners, and young entrepreneurs. When he isn’t working his day job (or fishing), Steve writes and speaks on strategy, work, and faith. After publishing the Life@Work Magazine, Steve launched a new writing and publishing venture, stephenrgraves.com, through which he helps stage conversations and create content around four life passions: organizational strategy, social innovation, leadership development, and practical faith.


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