Managing High Achievers
Harnessing Top Performers' Full Potential
Do you have someone in your team who's eager for responsibility, and who you can rely upon to get the job done? If the answer is "yes," then this person may be a high achiever.
Or, perhaps you have team members who look good on paper, but aren't fulfilling their potential. Maybe they make great initial progress on tasks, but can't seem to wrap them up. Or, perhaps, their work is great, but they take on too much and refuse to delegate. These people are likely to be frustrated high achievers.
High achievers can be true assets to their teams. These are the people who excel in terms of skills and responsibilities. Results-driven and motivated, they work to a high standard, with little need for supervision or hand-holding.
But without appropriate support, high achievers may struggle to realize their true potential. This article looks at what drives high achievers, and explores how you, as a manager, can help them flourish – and your team along with them.
Who Are Your High Achievers?
High achievers are ambitious, goal-focused, self-disciplined individuals, who are driven by a strong personal desire to accomplish meaningful, important goals.
According to David McClelland's Human Motivation Theory, there are three main motivators that determine who we are: the needs for achievement, affiliation and power. With high achievers, the dominant driver is the need for achievement.
There are several ways to spot the high achievers on your team:
- They take charge easily and display natural leadership qualities – often helping fellow team members achieve their goals.
- They have strong long-term focus and self-discipline. High achievers like to set a goal, and then work persistently towards it until it has been completed.
- High achievers frequently have an internal locus of control. They believe that they, and they alone, are responsible for where they'll end up in life.
- They like to be the "go to" person in their team, company or industry, and are willing to put in the effort needed to develop their expertise – often pursuing professional development on their own.
- High achievers typically have a positive mindset. They see challenging projects as opportunities, not threats. Their positive outlook helps them overcome setbacks and stick with a task until it's complete.
In short, they're great! However, managing this type of person can sometimes be challenging.
For example, high achievers can be perfectionists. In some cases, their desire to complete a task to perfection can actually limit productivity. They may also find it difficult to ask for assistance when they need it, and they are often reluctant to delegate tasks (believing that no one can do them as well as they can).
Some high achievers worry that others will feel intimidated by their success, or will have unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve. Other high achievers can worry that they can't live up to their reputation forever, and can start to avoid projects whose success is uncertain. As a result, these people can come to favor the routine and familiar over challenge and personal growth, which can result in their career growth reaching a plateau.
Other high achievers may be intensely competitive – some competitive spirit can drive a team to greater heights, but too much competition can cause stress and harm group morale.
How to Manage Your High Achievers
Your high achievers will need to know what you expect of them and will need to be stretched and find their work challenging and interesting. They also may need to be encouraged to take risks to help overcome any fear of failure. Use the strategies below to get the best from your high achievers.
High achievers can seem intimidating if you feel insecure about your own skills.
However, when your team performs well, it reflects well on you and the people around you. So don't feel daunted by exceptional candidates: a high achiever won't make others look bad – they can make everyone else on their team look better. So do everything that you can to bring them on board.
To attract high achievers, create an employer brand that will appeal to them. Offer opportunities for training, development and advancement, and make sure that their work is challenging and interesting.
The sky is the limit when it comes to what your high achievers can accomplish. However, they need to understand what you expect of them, and how you will measure their performance.
Use Management by Objectives to help your high achievers understand the organization's goals, and then work with them to align their personal goals with those of the business.
Keep It Interesting
According to research from the universities of Iowa and Notre Dame, high achievers place a greater importance on interesting and challenging work than people who are less achievement-driven. 
Keep your high achievers engaged with stimulating work activities – especially if there are limited opportunities for advancement. Start by getting them to perform a personal SWOT Analysis, to get a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Assign tasks and projects that play to and develop their strengths, and work on minimizing their weaknesses with training that helps them manage these.
High achievers typically want to expand their skill sets, so cross-train them to work in other positions. This will add diversity to their roles, and satisfy their desire for professional development. (Clearly, it will also increase the flexibility of your team.)
As you work on minimizing weaknesses, find ways for your high achievers to earn quick wins to build their confidence and motivation. Their work needs to be challenging, but not overly so – use the Inverted-U Model to find the right balance between pressure and performance.
Offer Special Assignments
In the past, companies rewarded their high achievers with fast-track development programs that led to rapid career advancement. Unfortunately, opportunities like these have often disappeared through cost-cutting and layoffs.
However, you can make sure that your high achievers don't stagnate by coming up with hand-picked "special assignments" that show how much you value their skills, while creating opportunities for them to take on extra responsibility and build new expertise.
Look out for opportunities to assign high achievers to departmental committees and task forces. Ask them to research new opportunities, make them responsible for new ventures, or ask them to help train new recruits. In other words, give them plenty of opportunities to shine.
Accept Honest Failure
In business, failure is generally seen as a bad thing. And, according to Thomas J. and Sara deLong in their article "Managing Yourself: The Paradox of Excellence," one of the primary reasons that high achievers plateau is fear of failure. 
Ironically, the more that others celebrate a high achiever's successes, the more afraid they can become of making mistakes. This causes them to shy away from risky endeavors and new challenges, locking them into familiar routines and causing their career trajectory to level off, while their peers continue to rise.
This doesn't mean that you should stop rewarding success, but you should help high achievers overcome any fear of failure. To do this, you can encourage them to take risks and to understand that "honest failure" – when someone has failed, despite having worked hard and made their best effort – can be a necessary precursor to even greater success.
High achievers need feedback, but not in the way you might initially think. Some high achievers care little for positive feedback and praise. They'd rather receive constructive criticism to help them improve, although this certainly isn't true in all cases!
Take care to balance your constructive criticism with praise and thanks, even if your high achievers appear to be indifferent to recognition.
High achievers have a deep-seated need to achieve. They're driven, natural leaders, and they have the persistence and self-discipline needed to accomplish long-term goals. But they need to be managed appropriately to help them to achieve their full potential.
As part of this:
- Clarify your expectations.
- Keep work diverse and interesting – high achievers like a challenge, but try not to set the bar too high.
- Assign tasks and projects that will stretch their skills, and put them in leadership roles whenever you can.
- Give them a chance to shine through "special assignments" and participation in committees and task forces.
- Embrace honest failure, and create an environment where high achievers won't be afraid to try out new ideas and put new skills to the test.
- Provide regular feedback, so that people know how to improve their performance. But take care to balance constructive criticism with praise and thanks for their hard work.
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