Leading high performers

In my #ifiwereafounder tweets, I had a few comments related to hiring high performers and team building, not only for finding a co-founder, but also more generally.  What I did not cover, as the CEO of one of my portfolio companies recently so correctly pointed out, is what it takes to manage and lead a team of high performers.  This post will attempt to shed some light on this topic.

Developing, managing, retaining and leading high performing team members, whether they are right out of school or seasoned executives, is obviously critical to the success of any start-up venture.  But these folks, by the nature of their intelligence, curiosity and drive, can also at times be a handful to manage.  They also know they are great and have plenty of other opportunities, so keeping them engaged, focused and happy is important.

In my experience, and from observing many successful CEOs over the years, the following are critical points to focus on in leading a team of high performers:

  1. Create a sense of ownership and identity by connecting what they are working on with with the broader goals of the organization.  This is critical across the board, but with A players there is a constant need to feel like their ample skills are being applied to issues that move the needle for the company.  Sometime this is obvious (i.e. closing a key account from a sales perspective), but when it is not, make sure you have clearly articulated short and long terms goals and connect the dots for people.
  2. Ensure the goals are expressed in terms of ambition, not just dollars.  As you connect the specific activities and tasks to broader goals, ensure these goals have meaning beyond just numbers.  Yes, growing revenues, hitting budget and creating shareholder value are important, but high performers are motivated by feeling like they are part of something truly important that will create an impact on the world.
  3. Delegate and provide autonomy, but take an active interest in what they are doing.  With a clear linkage between their team's focus and broader goals, strong leaders know that the best approach is to step out of the way and let their high performers execute fairly autonomously. That said, this should not be translated into a perception that you don't care about how they are doing what they are doing as high performers will be proud of the approach they have taken. If you take the time to understand this, they will reward you with further creativity.  
  4. Find the right scope for their activities with a balance between stretching them, but not stretching them so much they feel like they are set up to fail.  In a resource constrained early-stage company this is hard, as there is a tendency to keep putting more and more onto the plate of your high performers.  This is great, but know their limitations, listen carefully to when they feel like they are getting stuck and intervene before this becomes demoralizing.  
  5. Look for opportunities to let them stretch their wings outside of their core domain.  If you have a high performer in a specific domain, seek out opportunities to get them exposure to other parts of the organization.  This helps align their interests with that of the company more broadly, allows them to keep learning and facilitates cross functional cooperation across your team.  Special projects, critical sales situations or thorny customer service issues can often be good situations to involve others in developing creative solutions.
  6. Recognize success and achievement.  This is perhaps obvious, but as one of my CEOs observed, high performers all have a little diva in them.  Acknowledge this diva publicly and privately, but also in a demandingly honestly way as false praise for easy accomplishments is seen through pretty quickly.  
  7. Take pride in their development.  Our best CEOs view their job as grooming the next generation of leaders, and they revel in the success when people step up.  If seeing these unexpected accomplishments and this growth and development does not get you jazzed, it maybe you are not in the right role.
  8. Take an active interest in their life outside of work. Early stage companies can be all consuming and it is easy to lose sight of the fact that your high performers will have a life outside of the office.  Recognize this, know what is important to them and understand if there are extenuating circumstances outside of work that may impact their abilities inside work. 

I am sure I have missed some points, so let me know what works well for you!  I would also like to give a special thanks to several CEOs of Flybridge portfolio companies who provided invaluable advice on this post.  They are the real rock stars, and I would like to publicly acknowledge their inner divas.

One thought on “Leading high performers

  1. ASG May 14, 2014 / 8:45 pm

    i’d like to suggest one modification related to your points 4, 5 and 7: actively help your high performers grow.
    as an early-stage company scales, founding CEOs may receive the advice to replace early employees with experienced managers. however, this doesn’t give the early employee an opportunity to advance her skillset and grow into an experienced manager.
    accordingly, one option for CEOs is to proactively recruit executive coaches and mentors to help the early employee develop into an experienced manager. i believe this approach results in a stronger team and culture.

    Like

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