Top performers may not have obvious development needs and in identifying those needs, you can sometimes feel like you're being nitpicky or over-demanding. In addition, top performers may not be used to hearing constructive feedback and may rankle at the slightest hint that they're not perfect.
However, giving your stars good feedback is essential to keeping them engaged, focused, and motivated. Luckily, feedback discussions do not need to be unpleasant, especially with top performers. Instead of dreading your next review session with your star, think of it as an exciting opportunity to celebrate success and discuss what's next.
What the Experts Say
Don't be tempted to bend the feedback rules for top performers. No matter who is receiving the feedback, it is essential to follow good feedback practice. Do your homework; gather data and details to support your feedback. Always describe behaviors, not traits. Don't dwell on the past; instead focus on what the employee can change in the future. Be sure to check for understanding and agree on clear next steps and a fair way to measure progress.
That said, feedback for your top performers does require special care. Don't assume your star is perfect. Jean-François Manzoni, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Development at IMD International and co-author of The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to Fail points out, "Everyone has some room for improvement, in this job or the next, within our current set of capabilities or a broader set that will likely come in handy in the future." You do your star a disservice if you fail to help her figure out how she can continue to grow.
When conducting your research remember that results don't always speak for themselves. High performers often have great results; yet it's important to understand how they achieve those results, and often at what cost. Unfortunately, top performers often get results by forgoing other things, such as caring for their people, building alliances with others, or maintaining a healthy work/life balance. In addition, a top performer's strengths may often be her weaknesses. Think carefully about the behaviors that have enabled your star to succeed - they may be the same behaviors holding her back (see Case Study #1 below).
To make the most of your feedback session, focus the discussion on three levels: the star's current performance, her next performance frontier, and her future goals and aspirations. At the beginning of the session, set up the conversation by explaining you will be covering those three levels. Jamie Harris, Senior Consultant and Board Member at Interaction Associates and author of Harvard Business School Press's Pocket Mentor book Giving Feedback says, "This is always a good thing to do, but especially important for a high stakes conversation." Once you've agreed with your top performer on the agenda, start by talking about her current performance.
Express Gratitude for Current Performance
Many managers make the mistake of assuming that their top performers already know how well they are doing. Always start your feedback session by specifically stating what your star has accomplished. Show gratitude for her contributions and successes. As Manzoni says, "Advice is more likely to be welcome if it builds on comments acknowledging and celebrating this year's performance and is clearly positioned at helping the subordinate continue to develop beyond the current role and capability set." Constructive feedback is more easily received if it is preceded by genuine appreciation for hard work. Given how valuable your star is to you and your organization, you can't express enough how much you value her.
Now, What's the Next Performance Frontier?
Top performers are likely committed to self-improvement - that's one of the ways they became top performers. As her manager, it's your responsibility to help her determine how to keep improving. Tap into that commitment and engage your high performer in a discussion about how she might achieve the next level of performance, whether it is a new sales target or a promotion. This part of the discussion should include recognition of what might be standing in her way and how she can overcome those obstacles. This doesn't need to be a negative conversation, however. Manzoni had a particularly good manager who adeptly helped him think about what was next and how he could get there. As Manzoni says, "I never felt criticized. Instead, I walked into his office six feet tall, and I came out of it nine feet tall."
Identify Future Goals and Aspirations
Once you and your star have agreed on where she is headed, ask about her motivation and values. To prompt her, ask questions such as: "What do you want to be known for?" or "What matters most to you?" This will give her a chance to reflect on her career path and how this current role and her next performance frontier fit in. It will give your high performer what Harris describes as a "window into greater awareness about what enables her to succeed in the current situation and what she want to achieve next." It will also allow you to figure out how you can align her motivations with those of the company. Harris says, "Some people perform well in any context but people will almost always perform well when their own excellence is aligned with that of the organization."
Before you wrap up a feedback session with a high performer, always solicit feedback on how you are doing as a manager. Ask questions such as "How can I continue to support your high performance?" or "What can we do as an organization to keep getting better and supporting your great work?" This is important because, as Harris says, it "shows that you're their ally in achieving what they want to achieve." Harris says, "This also helps cement their connection to the organization."
Frequency is Key
In giving feedback to your stars, frequency is crucial. Harris warns that you shouldn't be tempted to leave your high performers alone. He says, "The higher the performer, the more frequently you should be providing feedback." Don't wait for review time. You and your company depend on retaining top performers. Therefore, it is a wise investment of your time and energy to support and develop them.
Principles to Remember:
- Give both positive and constructive feedback to high performers regularly.
- Identify development areas, even if there are only a few.
- Focus on the future and ask about motivations and goals.
- Presume a star has reached the limits of her performance.
- Leave your top performers alone.
- Assume your stars know how appreciated they are.
Case Study #1: When His Strength is also His Weakness
Drew Margolin, the former CFO at Medley Advisors, was fortunate to work with a stellar Director named Simon. Simon was by all measures a top performer in the company. He was efficient and no-nonsense and kept focused on his work, not on the day-to-day drama and gossip that often happens in a small company. However, because he didn't get involved in company politics, he often came off as "unapproachable." In his mid-year review, Drew told him that while his ability to stay above the company drama was a real strength, the fact that others thought of Simon as unapproachable was not okay. He provided an example: Simon often skipped out on the Friday lunches offered by the company, social events that were considered an integral part of the "company spirit."
Drew told Simon that he would be more successful in his job if he could find ways to build relationships and trust with others. Drew explained that he didn't particularly enjoy the social events either but understood he had to attend and socialize as part of his job. At first Simon nodded and agreed he would be more participative. He vowed to not have lunch at his desk on Fridays. However, the next Monday, he showed up at Drew's office upset. He had thought about it and didn't understand how a skill could be both a strength and a weakness and wanted Drew to decide which it truly was. Drew said, "I took this as a good sign because it meant he had considered changing and what it would mean for him." It took Simon a few discussions with Drew to fully understand the importance of what Drew asked and the double-sided nature of his ability to stay uninvolved.
Eventually, Simon started to attend more of the events, somewhat begrudgingly, but his participation allowed him to create better relationships across the company. Simon was later promoted twice, and when Drew left the company, he even took on some of the former CFO's responsibilities.
Case Study #2: Reframing Feedback in the Context of Long-term Goals
Gretchen Anderson, the Director of Business Development at the search firm On-Ramps, has worked with many young, ambitious professionals throughout her career. As a manager at the management consulting firm Katzenbach Partners, Gretchen managed a particularly ambitious consultant named Melissa. Melissa was an extremely hard working associate - so hard working that Gretchen and others at the firm were concerned she would burn out. Her reviews were comprised mostly of positive feedback about her performance. However, Gretchen felt she needed to address the pace of Melissa's work, "I didn't want her to be another burn out story."
Upon hearing the feedback, Melissa was extremely emotional and didn't understand why Gretchen would thank her for her hard work and then tell her to stop working so hard. She felt she should be the judge of when she was working too much. In every one of Melissa's feedback sessions this issue became a source of intense emotion for Melissa and conflict with Gretchen. Melissa regularly asked for follow-up sessions to keep discussing the issue and grilling Gretchen about the fairness of the feedback. After a half dozen conversations, Gretchen decided she needed to find a way to reframe the issue so Melissa could understand what was at stake. Instead of starting the sessions focused on current performance, Gretchen began by asking Melissa about her long-term career goals. Gretchen said, "I knew I couldn't change her nature but I could focus on helping her change her behavior as long as I could get her in the right frame of mind first." Melissa said she wanted to be promoted to manager as soon as possible. With that goal as the backdrop, Gretchen was able to explain more clearly to Melissa the consequences of her work pace: as a manager, Melissa needed to set an example for her associates. Also, if she was constantly working at capacity, how would she handle a last minute request from a client? Melissa needed to figure out how to build more spaces into her schedule so that when she became a manager, she'd be able to serve her clients well and treat her associates fairly. Melissa's drive to work hard was not going to go away, so instead of battling that, Gretchen gave her a reason she could relate to to modify her behavior.