Managing high achievers

Managing high achievers

Transforming complex legacy systems is rarely glamorous.

Cash is tight, constraints are high, and progress can be slow. Everyone comes to the table with their own processes, mindsets, and political dynamics, which can easily incite conflict. Compared to working with successful companies, these projects are usually more stressful and provide less immediate rewards.

The high achievers on your team have options. Your mission may inspire them initially but you need to be careful to support them and keep raising the bar on opportunities to keep them around. Even your most resilient superheroes will burn out if you don’t pay attention to the following tips.


1. Know what they do/have done

You probably already have a copy of their resume, LinkedIn profile, or project portfolio. Actually refer to it. Too many managers base their understanding of someone’s capabilities off of what their current job description says or what they hear from others rather than taking the time to understand what the high achiever has accomplished and how they approach their work. These high achievers are sacrificing time, energy, and sometimes relationships to help your organization succeed. When it’s clear that a manager didn’t take the time to do a little research or even ask them about their job, trust erodes.


2. Give them space to own something

High achievers will optimize and innovate within the bounds they have. Unfortunately, some managers decide to limit the boundaries of that box, hindering potential. A good manager would allow them to completely own the work, and help them identify areas to expand. Don’t micromanage or your high achievers will shut down and try to apply their creativity and intellect somewhere else.


3. Promote learning and skill development

High achievers are constantly looking to “level-up.” Unfortunately, managers often focus more energy and resources on bringing lower performers up to baseline. Support your high achievers as well by suggesting techniques to learn and practice. Companies that value learning provide discounts or completely reimburse the cost of books, courses, and conferences. They also build in opportunities to learn and improve skills during the work week, via projects, seminars, and workshops.


4. Provide feedback

Managers may be reluctant to give high performers critical feedback, but your high achievers want to know how to keep improving their strengths and weaknesses. This works well when you give them the feedback directly and privately.


5. Don’t talk about vague promotion schedules

Don’t tell them that they need to just wait a few years before they can get a promotion. Give them examples of actionable experience and training that they need to be considered at the next level. Without that, your high achievers will leave for somewhere else that doesn’t base career progression off of a vague algorithm.


6. Allow them to congregate with other high achievers

Your high achievers will eventually leave if they don’t have anyone to share ideas with and learn from. Introduce them to other high achievers and consider setting up teams or groups that help foster bonds, like Pixar’s “Brain Trust.”


7. Ask for their insights and share your reasoning

High achievers will be loyal lieutenants to good leaders. But they will also fight fiercely against leadership decisions that don’t make sense to them. “Because leadership said so” is not generally inspiring enough for high achievers. Maintain two-way communication, or you might miss out on key information that could influence your decisions.


8. Be aware of high performer/low performer tension

Your high achievers might be used to an environment where everyone else was a high achiever or performance was rewarded. They will become bitter if they feel that low performers are getting a free pass or if more work is piled on them because they can competently complete it.

Three things can help:

(a) Dealing with low performers by moving them, training them, or letting them go

(b) Setting limits around the maximum workload people can receive and compensate them accordingly (with $, opportunities, or recognition)

(c) Remind your high achievers to look at the issue objectively instead of projecting their motivations and work style on others as the only possible model. Just because they’re wired for delayed gratification and working long hours doesn’t mean that everyone else is. All types of people are required to keep an organization humming, and sometimes “low performance” is a symptom of a mismatch between the individual, the organization’s needs, and people’s expectations of the role.

Also, consider your role as a manager creating the environment that everyone is operating within. It’s possible that low performance is related to the environment, tools, or level of trust in the group, rather than the individual.



Your mission may draw in high achievers but as a manager or mentor, you need to be aware of these factors to keep them happy, productive, and growing. Or they’ll find someone else that will.

Are you a high achiever? What have your favorite bosses done? Which management techniques didn’t work?

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