What to do when you have a “star” performer on your team

or A Hard Act to Follow

Everyone wants a high performer on their team. Our competitive educational system and our pay-for-performance reward systems motivate people to be the one that stands out. I’ve noticed that when leaders discover an exceptionally talented player on their team they often opt to interfere as little as possible – perhaps hoping to leave the path clear to even greater performance. In some cases, a leader gets so excited by the potential to increase the team’s output and reputation, that they protect their star from any distractions.

Good leadership is about sound intervention and far-sightedness. Step out of the glare of the stellar performance that may be blinding you to the longer-term negative consequences. Are you inadvertently creating overdependence on your star, and therefore an organizational risk? Have you lost sight of the big picture? Instead of learning the hard way – once a star performer leaves – take action today to protect your team and your organization.

The first thing is to plan for knowledge transfer. Ensure that your star is mentoring someone on the team. You might get some kick-back on this – many stars will say it slows them down to have to teach others. At the very least, have others job-shadow or accompany them to meetings. Ignore the whining and insist that their job is to share their knowledge, insights and ways of thinking with the company. If there is truly no one to buddy them with, ask them to document their processes and their thought patterns. At least spend your one-on-one time asking lots of questions and learning from them.

Secondly, manage evolution of the job itself. Often high performers keep loading their jobs. They easily take on new tasks and complain they are bored if they don’t get something new. In the short-term, this feels great. But this subtle evolution of the role is a problem. Over time, the job morphs into something that is a mish-mash of responsibilities and connections that don’t make logical sense. Usually, the things added are those that come naturally to the incumbent, or those that provide the stimulation and visibility they seek for their careers.

This can create a problem when they suddenly insist the job needs to be re-evaluated, putting your whole team structure and compensation equity policies in jeopardy. Sometimes, the job loading comes to light too late – as when you are trying to update a job description and recruit a replacement.  By then, the purpose of the position is blurred by what the incumbent made it. Good luck trying to recruit someone who can fit the mould created by your departing star.

To avoid this problem, keep involved. Without demoralizing your eager performer, remind them of their formal role and its accountabilities. Ensure they keep you informed of additional work they are doing so you can give them credit. Document these extra efforts in their formal performance reviews. Compensate for the above-and-beyond stuff using reward programs that sit outside the regular salary limits, so that you don’t get caught paying more for the job than what is it worth.

If the job expands too much, but you like the direction it’s going in, off-load some work. Rather than let them decide what goes, stay involved in prioritizing what can be delegated. In the interest of the team, you may need to take away tasks that this person really likes to do, or the things that were “theirs first”. They might not be happy about that, but consider the organization’s business processes and the network of related jobs. Perhaps it is time to create a more junior role reporting into this person – another way to solve your problem of knowledge transfer.

Thirdly, observe and protect team dynamics. Within a work group, there is distaste for people who are arrogant or those who innocently make others look bad by looking so good. If you are raving about one person, or constantly holding them up as the standard, be cautious. Few things create tension faster than the perception of favouritism. Sometimes it is not you, but the performer themselves, who isolates themselves as they ramp up. Most organizations use a competitive process for promotions and pay increases, so it’s easy for a high performer to justify pulling ahead of the pack. Your job is to ensure that teamwork behaviours undergird the delivery of results. Your highest performer is not the individual contributor, but the person who knows how to get work done while collaborating with others. Advocate team values like cooperation, communication and peer recognition.

Finally, insist on downtime. Many leaders are so happy to have a high performer on their team that they ignore signs of burn-out. Isolation, often favoured by independent performers, can also be a sign of stress. Success at work often comes at a high cost in one’s personal life. Many high performers have a sense of commitment that makes it difficult for them to ask for relief. Pay attention to long hours, late-night emails and vacations not taken. Enforce a reasonable standard and offer relief. For health and safety, most companies insist that vacation time be used rather than banked or paid-out.

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