Second Best also Deserves a Chance
A number of years ago I had the opportunity to meet Canadian Olympic rower Alison Korn. I remember asking her, "What was it like to row in the Olympics?" She said, "It's funny, even though we practiced for years, we never found the passion and energy until we saw the finish line. But when we knew that we were one thousand metres from the finish line and all that we had worked for would be lost, we found more passion and energy than we ever thought possible."
I remember that race. They went from fourth to second and narrowly missed winning the Gold. Why is it that teams who have struggled the entire game monopolize the final five minutes? How come they couldn't figure it out for the first fifty-five? It's because they didn't see their finish line. Professional athletes need the clarity and finality that the finish line provides them. A finish line is that point of no return that you can shoot for.
In our world, the goal is to attract and keep great people, but I find myself wondering: are we giving our employees a clear target to shoot for? In essence, do our employees know what it means to be great? Do they know what the expectations are and do we give them the room to exceed them? Maybe instead of attracting great employees we need to be focusing our attention to grooming great employees.
Basically, I believe there are three types of employees out there. There are those who get it, those who want to get it, and those who are there just for the ride. For the employees who get it, their abilities are natural, their skills are instinctive and our role is to clear any obstacles and stand out of their way. On the other end, for the employee who is just there for the ride, our role is to prompt, prod and motivate but quite frankly I seldom, if ever, have seen these people turn into our star performers. So this leaves us the middle, the employees that want to get it but just can't do it on their own. I believe we need to spend most of our time working with them. These are the employees who want to make a significant contribution, who want to overachieve but for whom it just isn't as instinctive for whatever reason. This is where I believe you can find real gold!
As managers, I think one of the things we do to confuse employees is have them chasing too many targets. Sure, we create goals and objectives, but over the year we let too many other "priority one" initiatives land on their plate. Am I the only one who has had a boss that believed everything in the business was priority one? In the end, we water down our potential performers by having them focus on way too much. If we want peak performance we have to give them the clarity of a finish line and remove many of the other distractions.
Another challenge I find in managing this middle tier is confidence. Quite often they have the skills but lack the confidence to go out and take self directed action. They are often waiting or seeking approval. One of the best things you can do is encourage them to take a risk. Encourage them to step out on their own and take the initiative. Encourage them to think and do what's best for the business. Because this group is naturally risk adverse, you will seldom see them take on too much risk.
Finally, you need to consider the team dynamics. Are you giving as much publicity and promotion to this middle group? I often find that, in most organizations, all of the attention goes to the "stars," the ones at the top. The problem is you end up alienating others along the way. Our role in coaching peak performance is in balancing the amount of attention and promotion we give.
Think about the roles and expectations you have defined for others. While they may appear clear to us, remember it doesn't come as easily and naturally for everyone. Give more guidance on what it takes to overachieve. Also, try taking the time to segment your team and focus more attention on the employees in that valuable middle group. In the end, their contribution will be invaluable. Remember that every company needs a balance of performers. While it's important to attract and keep great employees, it's also critical that we groom and coach new ones.
We need our stars. But we also need our second and third stringers. In fact, if you think about it, the teams that win championships are often the ones where there is less focus and expectation on the stars and more emphasis on developing the team.