How to manage high achievers

 How to manage high achievers

For managers who place a high value on productivity, a staff made up of high achievers may seem like a dream team. After all, who wouldn't be keen on the idea of managing a cadre of goal-focused employees who are self-motivated and ambitious?

"High achievers have a strong desire to succeed and to be the best they can be," said Barbara Bowes, president of Legacy Bowes Group, a human resource consulting firm in Winnipeg, Canada.

But they can also be a challenge for managers. Some top performers are highly competitive with strong egos. They constantly seek new challenges and love shaking things up, Bowes said. It is a manager's responsibility to make sure they are team players who don't put their own goals ahead of the organisation's.

Several human resources experts offered strategies for leaders to bring out the best in their high achievers without allowing personal ambitions to undermine leadership or get in the way of overall team success.

Recruit strategically. A smart manager starts with building the right team. Take your time with the hiring process, said Lisa Sterling, chief people and culture officer with Ceridian, a software company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that builds global human capital management solutions for organisations of all sizes.

"Strength and talent only go so far on their own," she said. "Be sure the top performers you hire are also a good fit for your organisational culture."

Asking behaviour-based questions during the interview will help managers identify high achievers and assess how they may fit the existing office culture. Generally, behaviour-based questions require job candidates to describe how they handled various situations and resolved specific problems.

Clearly communicate your expectations. High achievers are critical thinkers who often challenge management and do not accept the status quo, according to Caryl Thomas, a director and human resources consultant with the HR Dept, an international network of HR experts. It's important to make sure they understand what you expect from them by maintaining a steady stream of one-on-one communication.

"Build in an ongoing appraisal system rather than relying on a simple annual review to keep your high achievers on track and make sure they don't go rogue or overstep the boundaries you set," she said. The appraisals should be linked to your firm's culture and emphasise how the employee contributes to overall company performance, she added.

Don't hold them back. Bring in high-performing employees and then get out of their way. "High achievers are optimistic and well prepared. They know how to plan and how to pivot and scale. They have a strong drive and the ability to evolve rapidly," Sterling said. Effective managers focus on developing their top employees' individual strengths and understand they will perform at their best when they are in scenarios that play to those strengths.

"As leaders, we tend to micro-manage people, and with high performers, that is a mistake. You have to let them do their jobs. Your role is to help them shine, day in and day out," Sterling said.

Keep raising the bar. High achievers are entrepreneurial and enterprising, and they relish projects that require creativity and innovation, according to Bowes. "They are results oriented, and they like to change things, fix things, and make things better," she said. They also love to take on new challenges. The best projects for high achievers are those that take from three to six months to reach fruition.

"If you give them a project that lasts a year or longer, make sure to factor in short term, measurable goals so they can see results along the way," Bowes said.

Help them achieve their personal goals. The best employees gravitate to the most desirable workplaces, those with a distinct structure, chart, and guidelines for individuals who wish to grow within their company and receive promotions, according to Thomas.

"The highest-flying achievers have high expectations. They have ideas about where they want to go and they want a roadmap to the top," she said. Give these employees access to your top leaders and make sure they know where they might fit in your firm's succession plan.

Be willing to let them go. Understand that high achievers are ambitious people who want to fly as high and as far as possible. They may reach the top rung of your organisation's ladder with nowhere else to go. If your high-performing employee seeks a higher level of responsibility that you can't provide, be grateful for the contributions they made to your business.

"Be happy that you taught them well and gave them the tools and experience to move up in their career," Bowes said. "They will always be an alumnus of your firm."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at