How To Improve the Performance of a Top Performer

Your core role as a manager is to get the best out of your team. If you do that, they perform well, which means that your team performs well, which means that you perform well. For most of your team, particularly those in the earlier stages of their career, knowing how to improve their performance is fairly straightforward. Obviously, actually doing it is another matter! It’s usually not that difficult to know what to focus on and how to push them.

But what about those who are a bit later on in their careers? Those who are already high performers and very experienced? How do you keep developing someone who has already had a lot of development?

Let’s dive in and take a look.

Sidenote: you may also be interested in taking a look at this article on how to manage people who are older or more experienced than you.

Find out what continues to motivate them

This is something that you should be doing anyway for all of your team members. But it’s even more important for those who are already performing well and very experienced because as we get a little older or more experienced, our motivations can change, particularly when it comes to work and money. 

The word “continues” here is very important too. You need to delve a little deeper than usual into what motivates them beyond the obvious. There are likely to be things that lean more towards job satisfaction and what makes them happy in life, as opposed to day to day things.

Examples of motivators

Examples of how motivators can change based on experience.

To be clear, I’m not saying that any of these motivators are wrong or mutually exclusive. I am hoping that you can see the difference in the types of motivators that you may need to uncover with someone who is a top performer already.

Give them a higher degree of trust and autonomy

No one likes to be micromanaged, but the tolerance for being micromanaged reduces as someone becomes a top performer and more experienced. 

Sidenote: check out this article if you want to check if you’re accidentally micromanaging people.

You need to not only avoid micromanagement with top performers, you need to visibly do the opposite by giving trust and autonomy to them. Whilst it’s a very intangible thing to do, there are fewer things that can make someone feel good and step up than saying “I trust you to do a great job”. It’s even more powerful when you add “and I’d like to give you the freedom to do your job how best you see fit”. 

Remember that you’re ultimately accountable for the work that your team produces, so you’ll need to still provide guidance and direction, but as we’ll discuss in the next point, you don’t need to dictate the day-to-day stuff to them.

A final point on this – it’s worth being very explicit about giving someone a higher degree of trust and autonomy than usual. The words above really are powerful and should be said explicitly – not implied or with a half measure. Otherwise, the effect on the individual won’t be as strong as it could be.

Give them the destination, not the map

I’m a big believer in giving someone an objective or an ideal outcome, then letting them figure out how to get there. Of course, I’ll support them along the way, but I resist giving them the exact steps that they need to follow.

Having said that, you do need to be careful with more junior, less experienced team members and especially those who are performing “okay”.

At the opposite end of the scale, I think it’s a necessity to avoid doing this with top performers. Not only are they more capable of finding their own way to the outcome that you want, but they will get very frustrated, very quickly if you try to dictate the path to them.

Think of it as giving them the destination, but not the map. You’re not saying that you’ll never give them a map or show them parts of it, but you’re saying that you trust them to find their way because they are more than capable.

Bring them into your own challenges and hard conversations

This is a big one and again, is very intangible, but can have a very positive effect on top performers and their motivation. You’re essentially bringing them “inside” your day-to-day work and challenges, which shows that you not only value their input, but that you trust them too.

For example, up until this point, you may have led and handled all decisions on when to hire new team members. Now, you decide to go and consult with the top performer and see what they think – should you hire now? Should you hold off? What level of experience should you aim for?

By bringing them into this conversation, you’re elevating their responsibilities and their influence – whilst still holding onto accountability as a manager. 

It may be something even simpler, such as asking for their help on a project that you’re working on and struggling with. 

Essentially, you’re aiming to get them involved in a wider variety of decisions, problems and challenges which can leave them with a feeling of being valued and motivated to help more.

Step outside of your industry

Finally, a more tangible way to push top performers even further and to help them learn, is to get them to step outside of your own industry. We can often get caught in our own “bubble” both within our companies but also within our industry.

For example, many years ago I was in an Operations role at an agency and leading a large team. I sought out people in similar roles at other agencies but also in completely different companies. I ended up having a great conversation with the Operations Manager for a large group of restaurants in London. This helped give me a different perspective on managing people and on how to think about operations. 

Even if you stay tangentially connected to your industry, there is still a lot of scope to get a completely different perspective on a role. If you are working in a design agency, you could seek out support for a team member from a development agency. If you’re managing a team of marketers within an ecommerce brand, you could try to connect with similar sized B2B brands.

It’s not easy, but the fundamentals of effective management and leadership still apply to managing top performers. You just need to turn up the dials a little and think a little harder to give them the continued development and support that they need.

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