Last week Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics all-around gymnastics final, and much of the world lost its ever-loving mind. Biles is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. She has no equal in gymnastics. Therefore, the only person who can legitimately decide whether she’s fit to compete, is her.
The same is true for extraordinary performers in all fields. That’s what makes managing them so uncomfortable for some bosses. Often, managers expect to lead by showing their team how to do things or coming up with the right answer. But you can’t do that when your direct report is better than anyone else at their job–including you.
I’ve managed elite performers during my time as a people manager, and I’m here to tell you that these folks still need you. They just need you differently than average performers. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind if you’re lucky enough to manage extraordinary people.
Even Simone Biles Has a Coach
There’s a school of thought that says, when you have a top performer, your only job is to get out of their way. That’s not true. You actually need to be a hands-on manager. Think of those elite race cars at the Daytona 500. They go through an average of 20-28 tires during that race. With elite performance comes elite maintenance. But the maintenance is different.
Act as a sounding board.
Elite performers need to bounce ideas off of people too. And they have few, if any, equals to collaborate with. So a good manager acts as a coach by asking leading questions, and encouraging experimentation. You may never tell them what to do, but you can help them clarify what they should try next.
Check your insecurities at the door.
When some managers are confronted by greatness, they compensate by taking the “everyone has something they can improve” approach. Then they pick something minor and spend time reminding the elite performer that they suck at it. This is about as effective as trying to get Simone Biles to improve her basketball game. The woman is 4’6.
Don’t confuse this with ignoring bad behaviour. If an employee is acting violently or inappropriately, deal with it. I’m talking about picking people apart because you feel intimidated. Don’t do it. Your job is to be as good at managing them as they are at doing their job.
Keep other people from slowing them down–or boxing them in.
We live in the era of mass-produced everything. And chances are, someone higher up the hierarchy would like to turn your high performer into an army of high performers. But not all extraordinary people are good teachers. And let’s face it, even if Simone Biles taught us gymnastics, I doubt you or I could do half the moves she does.
You may have to protect your high performer’s time. You may also need to protect their ability to perform their job to the best of their ability. Just as the judges at the US Classic underscored Bile’s Yurchenko Double Pike to keep things “fair” for everyone else, you may encounter leaders who essentially want to slow your direct report down because nobody else in the company can keep up.
This is an irrational decision. In business, EVERY company should want to outperform their rivals. The only way to overcome this maneuver is to be well connected. That way, you can talk the right people out of setting unnecessary limits on your people.
Managing elite performers is immensely rewarding. You get to watch people with extraordinary abilities do their thing up close, and benefit from their talents.
What’s That Douglas Up To?
I almost typed “finally done emptying boxes!” Unfortunately, that isn’t literally true. I still have boxes of yarn that need to be put in their new home. But I’m at the point that I can ignore those boxes with abandon and get on with my life.
My desk is set up. Wahoo! I think better when I have a dedicated space. My desk will never be super clear because I have many interests and they all cross my desk in one way or another (that’s a sewing box on the right) but it’s pretty.
I was supposed to have a comedy piece out last week but the fine folks who accepted it last year haven’t published it yet. I’m also waiting on a short story that is supposed to be out “soon,” and a comedy piece that was accepted last week.
Now that I have my desk set up I’m hopeful that I’ll begin writing regularly again. Hopefully, I’ll have more news to report on that front in my next blog post. Stay safe out there, friends.