Most good managers act in basically the same way and with basically the same mindset when it comes to top and bottom tier performers. That’s a bit of a generalization, but true for the most part. The wider variance in management focus and approach can be found in that middle performance tier, the average and slightly below average team members. I don’t think we all approach them the same way. It stands to reason, if this variance does exist, that there is a lot of ground to be won vs. your competition by making better decisions about the middle group – the “ok” performers.
Why do I describe the issue in this way?
My mindset is always to strive for “best in the world.” In fact, the number one attribute I look for when hiring new people is a genuine desire to be great. Truly great. Irrespective of where your team may be today, you should be working towards being the best in the world at what you do. It may take 20 years. You may never have the budget to do it. Your company many be in a tough industry. I get that. But what matters to me is the mindset – the commitment to a process that ultimately (even on an infinite timescale) gets your team to best in the world status.
If your team is striving to reach best in the world status, you need to find every edge you can get. In my experience, how you manage your middle tier, or “ok” performers present a real opportunity to find that edge. Most managers tend to ignore this group. It’s easy to do that. And sometimes, frankly, it’s the right thing to do if you have many other burning priorities. It’s easy to place all your attention and investment on motivating your top performers and managing your low performers. Part of the reason for that is it’s just so much more obvious to know what to do with them. The optimal approach for managing average or slightly below average team members if a much more complex problem. As a result, most of us do nothing. And therein lies the opportunity for competitive advantage.
If similar departments in other companies in my industry are ignoring their middle performers, I want to exploit that weakness. I want to outplay them in this area of management. Over the long run, as my middle performers become stronger and their middle performers stay flat, my team becomes better and my company has a new edge in the market. That’s the point of this article.
You may not often think of your team in this way. But what else is there? You’d compare sports teams on the strength of their starting lineups and the strength of their bench. Look at my beloved Toronto Raptors. The had a great season, by in large a result of their middle tier team members. Rather than ignore this group and attend only to the top and bottom players, they focused on building a stronger middle contingent, and it led to a competitive edge (for the regular season at least ☹)
Hopefully, I’ve made a decent argument for why you need to spend more time actively thinking about the development of your “ok” performers. Here are a few tips for how I do it:
Differentiate between “ok now” and “ok forever”
I pay very close attention to forward momentum when evaluating middle tier performers. If I can spot progress, even if it comes at a slow pace, I will happily continue investing in development. As much as I can, I take a pretty long-term view when it comes to team management. I don’t want to be trading people around like baseball cards. It’s important for me to develop long terms relationships with strong performers so we can build great teams together for many years and across many companies. This is not to say I would keep someone in a specific role if they aren’t competent – I wouldn’t. But I won’t give up on a team member if I see some evidence of forward momentum. That is, if I believe there is a reasonable probability the person will someday be great.
On the other hand, when I don’t see evidence of progress in a team member, I immediately start managing in the same way I’d manage a low performer. Either find a role that is a better fit or aggressively performance manage. That may sound harsh to some people. If the person is doing ok, why treat them like a low performer? And my answer is, because I want to be the best in the world.
My advice to managers is to look more closely at your “ok” performers. Specifically, I recommend looking for signs of momentum. If you find it, great, keep challenging them and don’t give up. If you can’t find it, I recommend managing them more as you would a low performer.
Aggressively move people to where they can be great
I need to be a bit careful on this one. I am not really a supporter of moving people around the organization from one role to another when they have not been successful anywhere. You see this happen in a lot of companies. Moderate performers moving from one group to another, ostensibly for their experience, but really because it seems easier than letting them go or hiring an unknown from outside the organization. I call this group, “serial movers”, and advocate against doing this.
With that said, there are cases where otherwise talented, high potential team members are just misplaced in the company. Strong individual contributors who moved hastily to management is probably the best example. Another example are team members who were very effective when the company was small, but now that it’s much bigger, seem a bit lost.
Many managers are reluctant to take action on this group. For the reasons I mentioned above or out of a sense of loyalty to long time team members who were once successful. I think this is a mistake. In my experience, team members are happiest when they are winning. It can be demoralizing for a habitual winner to start losing for a prolonged period of time. So, while you may be reluctant to have a tough conversation about a role change with someone on your team, they may well be silently wishing for it.
My advice to managers is to study your middle tier performers and identify those who could be great if placed in a different role. But really hold yourself to that standard – could this person be great if placed in a new role? If the answer is “yes,” then I recommend moving aggressively. If the answer is “no,” then I would immediately start managing them like you would a low performer.
Hire for the desire to be great
I won’t belabor this one since I kind of already made the point. In my interviews, I actively search for signs that the person I’m talking to has a deep seeded desire to be great. I look for people who are obsessed with best practices, and are well versed in what the best companies in the world are doing. When I find these qualities, I hire. It’s very rare, that a person who genuinely needs to be great will disappoint you. They may struggle here and there, but ultimately their drive and ambition for greatness will overcome.
Note, there is a big difference between wanting to be truly great in the purest sense, and wanting the trappings of success. You need to learn to tell the difference between the two. I’m looking for people who want to be true masters of their craft – to be great ... intrinsically. That’s the kind of magic that can transform a middle performer into a future star.
It’s not always clear how to manage average performers. It’s very easy to do nothing. To ignore them and place your all your energy on top and bottom performers. My contention is there is a competitive edge to be found in out-managing your competition in this middle realm. By raising the level of your “ok” performers, you could well become the Toronto Raptors of your industry (except hopefully you won’t’ collapse in the playoffs). Have a great week.