Several years ago, my wife and I ran into a young woman with whom I have worked in the past and whom we also know socially. She has always been a terrific performer, and at this point in her career she was one of 400 financial analysts working for a large company here in the Philadelphia area. We got to talking, and I asked her how things were going at work.
“Great,” she said. “We just had our performance reviews, and I received the top review possible.” She was judged to be “high performing and high potential” in all categories, which means that, at least at this point in her career, she is on target to be CEO one day.
I congratulated her on her review results. Then, I asked her a question. “Just out of curiosity, how many other people in your department got the same top grade that you did?” Her reply? None. Out of 400 people in her department, she was the only person to receive a “high performer and high potential” label.
“Wow,” I replied. “That’s really interesting.”
“What do you mean by that?” my friend asked.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for you. I am glad to hear that you are doing a great job and being recognized for it. But your manager is clearly not committed to hiring A-players.” If only one person out of 400 is a true star, that means that 0.25 percent of the people in this department were top performers. As a rule, when you start measuring the percentage of top performers on a team in basis points, you have a problem.
This was a department of “solid citizens,” people who came to work, did a good but not spectacular job, and then went home. The manager of this group was not serious about hiring A-players. The fact that she hired this one particular strong performer was an accident, not a strategy.
As a result, the goals this manager set and the expectations she had for this department were likely more suited for B-players than A-players.
The problem with this, I explained to my friend, is that when you surround one Great Dane with a bunch of Chihuahuas, you put yourself at risk of losing your only “big dog.” When you only have one star performer, you typically rely on that person to do his or her own job and other people’s as well. It’s easy to take the star for granted because you are so focused on ameliorating the weaknesses of the many weaker performers.
Great Danes want to hang out with other “big dogs” that will challenge them and help them grow. People know that their development and reputation hinges in part on the quality of the people with whom they work. They also know that working in a company filled with average performers will stunt their own growth. When star performers figure out that they are outpacing most people in their group, they start worrying about their future. They become more open to considering new opportunities to work for a new company.
After hearing my take on her situation, this woman looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, it’s interesting that you should say that because I have just started to get my résumé together.” It turns out she had already been struggling with some of the things I was discussing. She was working harder than many of her peers. She did not really respect her direct manager. Worst of all, she was unclear about the path and pace for being promoted.
Six months later, she notified her boss that she was leaving to take a promotion with another company in their industry. Her manager tried to keep her with a counter offer. Then the VP of her group tried the same thing. Finally, the CEO of this multibillion-dollar company personally stepped in to see what he could do to keep her. But it was too late. This woman had already decided that she needed to move to a new company in order to find the challenge and opportunity that she needed. And now, rather than having at least one top performer to rely upon, this manager was left with 399 Chihuahuas.
It’s not good enough to hire one superstar, surround him or her with a bunch of B-players, and then think that you will somehow muddle through the demands of running your business. Sooner or later, your superstar will get fed up and leave.
It’s easy to take your best performers for granted. They are the people who do what they say they will do when they say they will do it. So the temptation is to spend your time making sure that weaker performers deliver results. Invariably, with so many lackluster employees, you also drop your standards to fit their abilities. Over the long haul, this lack of attention coupled with lowered standards frustrates top performers and encourages them to look for a new job.
Don’t dumb your team down — smarten it up. If we want to keep the A-players that we have, we have to hire other great people and hold everyone accountable to high standards. Nothing encourages the best performers more than seeing the boss reward great performance and hold poor performers accountable for their lack of results.
If you have one A-player on your team, view today as the beginning rather than the end of your recruiting efforts. Team him or her up with another great performer. If you have a handful of talented people, this is the moment to bring the entire team up to their standards. A commitment to continually hiring great people results in a culture that keeps top performers around.
Originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 27, 2012.
ERIC HERRENKOHL is president of Herrenkohl Consulting (www.herrenkohlconsulting.com), an executive search and consulting firm that works with the top executives in manufacturing and supply chain. He is also the author of the Amazon bestseller “How to Hire A-Players” (www.howtohireaplayers.com), described as “the definitive book on talent acquisition.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.