Training & Development

Employee Performance: Focus on Your Superstars

Rebecca GibsonEvery manager holds a quiver full of beliefs about how to manage and develop their team. They work to get to know each team member, clearly communicate job requirements and goals, identify strengths and weaknesses, and support continuous performance improvement. A key component of their management strategy often includes dedicating substantial time to their poor performers, supporting and guiding improvement until performance is within acceptable standards.

Sounds pretty standard, right? But take a minute to think about it. We spend a significant amount of time on a small number of employees just to get them to a level of performance defined as “acceptable.” This common scenario exhausts a manager’s limited supply of energy and time to achieve — maybe, sometimes – an acceptable level of performance.

In the meantime, we think of our top performers — our superstars — like tops. They start their tenure with us spinning upright and we expect them to keep doing so in their superstar way, counting ourselves lucky to have them and thanking them frequently. How often have you told a high performer on your team, “I don’t know what I’d do without you”?

Not enough, according to former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who says that your most important managerial priority is to “take the top 20% of your employees and make them feel loved.” Welch, and many other top people-developers, including Marcus Buckingham (whose book, Now Discover your Strengths, focuses on improving what already works rather than improving what’s wrong) and leadership authority Marshall Goldsmith, believe that your top 20% deserves as much, if not more, time than your bottom 20%. Why? First, they are the most likely to leave you for someone who will love and reward them better. And second, these employees can become disenfranchised easily when their substantial efforts aren’t valued and rewarded. Why expend 120% of your effort when you’re not treated any differently than the person sitting next to you who only gives 70%?

This confounds managers who think of performance management as primarily a process focused on fixing what’s wrong. And why spend time on high performers when they aren’t doing anything wrong? In too many organizations, their reward for an outstanding performance is simply being left alone.

Let’s turn that idea on its head and position performance management as a process to leverage the company’s resources to reach their highest potential and task the manager with more effectively managing those resources (not just fixing what’s wrong). With your high performers, this is surprisingly easier and more productive — and a lot more fun — than fixing what’s wrong.

Getting Started
The first step is to categorize your staff into high-, middle- and low-performance groups. A useful tool is a staff differentiation worksheet that evaluates, rates and ranks each employee within a like group (e.g., contact center agents or supervisors) using a standard set of criteria — for example, job knowledge and requirements, interpersonal skills, technical skills and values (e.g., commitment, teamwork, positive attitude). These work requirements and characteristics should be clearly communicated to employees when they begin the job and through ongoing coaching and other communication vehicles, such as job descriptions, competency profiles, monitoring forms and performance evaluation templates. No fair springing requirements on employees without their knowledge or adequate support.

Now your top performers know who they are. They know you know, too, and are looking to see what you’re going to do next. This is the best part of every manager’s job — taking a group of top performers and setting the stage for them to continue to drive the success of your team and the contact center.

High-Performer Strategies

What’s the best way to inspire and engage your top performers? You definitely cannot do it by leaving them alone. Your strategy is to recognize, reward, support and guide them in meaningful and collaborative ways. The following are six specific strategies to get you started.

1. Don’t take them for granted
Sure, it’s great to thank your high performers for the work they do, but how else do you treat them differently and recognize their aboveaverage contributions? Sometimes we’re afraid of — or dissuaded from — treating different employees differently. But, honestly, why not? You want your staff to know that if they behave in an exemplary way, they’ll be recognized with exemplary rewards that are different than what everyone else gets. That might be development opportunities (e.g., professional conferences or classes), first dibs on the best shifts, bonuses that are significantly higher or Friday lunches with the boss. Don’t miss out on chances to show your entire staff — high, middle and low performers — that you value high performance.

2. Focus on career and skill development
Since your top performers are regularly meeting and exceeding expectations, overturning rocks looking for something to correctively coach will erode your credibility and demoralize the superstar. For these employees, your focus as a manager is less on correcting and more on asking and suggesting.

Ask top employees what career path within the organization they see themselves following. What skills or knowledge would they like to expand? For instance, you can support an agent who is interested in becoming a supervisor by providing the opportunity to work with another who is struggling, and providing developmental feedback based on their coaching skills.

Suggest areas that your superstars may wish to learn more about (e.g., reporting or call monitoring evaluation) or ways to increase their exposure to the rest of the organization. Arrange for top performers to spend time in another department, attend a meeting in your place or participate in a project group.

3. Learn their motivational profile
While many high performers are motivated by the promise of growth and advancement, that’s not what drives every superstar. It’s important to understand each individual’s motivational profile — the job factors that drive the agent’s commitment and engagement. What about their current job satisfies them? Is it the work itself? The promise of advancement? The values or mission of the company? For instance, you might have an experienced professional who takes an agent position to work an abbreviated schedule or to avoid a job where they’re expected to take work home with them. This employee might not welcome additional work responsibilities as a reward, while a career-track agent might. Take the time to find out what motivates your superstars and you’ll be rewarded with sustained commitment and dedication.

4. Coach with care
As a manager, you take your commitment to coaching seriously. In Strategy #2 (Focus on Career and Skill Development), we cautioned you against searching for something to correctively coach just to fulfil your coaching obligation. With your high performers, focus on “stretch” goals and development — how they can improve their performance even more or expanding their expertise in new areas — rather than addressing inconsequential “gaps.” Your goal is to help them aspire to their full potential. Make sure you’re not looking for and focusing on something that isn’t really there.

That’s the fun — the joy — of high performers. They are already motivated; they are already committed. Your job is solely to nurture and grow that spark. Unlike your low performers, who you may have to counsel, cajole and warn with negative consequence, high performers allow a manager to be positive without reservation. This creates an environment that’s positive not only for employees but for managers, too! In fact, some managers schedule their coaching sessions with their high performers first, since it leaves them with such a positive feeling.

5. Encourage participation and input
Nothing makes an employee feel like he counts more than listening to his opinions. High performers often have valuable insights on how work is organized and completed, how their team works together, and even on the performance and effectiveness of their manager. Demonstrate your trust and respect by encouraging your high performers to share their opinions. It’s a great way to model how you make business decisions and to encourage them to flex their judgment and decision-making skills.

6. Provide a formal mentoring program
Your high performers — many of whom are career-driven — need attention, sometimes more than their direct manager is able to give them. Formal mentoring programs, in which an employee is paired with a more senior employee for developmental coaching and feedback, can be a powerful addition to your high-performer strategy. Employees benefit from interacting with others in the organization outside of their immediate team, and can increase their understanding of the business with an expanded view of the work that the company does. If you don’t already have one, consider creating an optional mentoring program, available to high performers only, to serve as a reward, a motivational aid and a development tool (see Strategy #1, Don’t Take Them for Granted).

Your superstars deliver day in, day out. They drive your success, the success of your team and of your contact center. There is little doubt that maintaining the passion of your high performers is vital to the success of the organization as a whole. While there isn’t one solution that will help you to do this, a comprehensive, thoughtful strategy of active gestures, coaching, support and recognition will ensure that these valuable employees stay committed, engaged and contributing for the long haul.

Rebecca Gibson is a workplace learning and performance consultant and Principal of Learning Currents.

– Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline,

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