Don’t Waste Your Time Hiring High Performers
It’s all about the people, right? If you hire right, you’ll do well (so states the conventional wisdom). The problem is hiring high performers isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Doing so can create tremendous problems for your organization and you’re the root cause of those problems.
Hiring high performers can work out great if you do it for the right reasons and if you create the right conditions to bring them in. More often than not, however, we hire for all the wrong reasons and never think beyond our immediate needs for hiring that superstar. When we do so, all we’ve done is arm the timer on an employment bomb that will go off in our faces.
Why do we want to hire high performers in the first place? There’s the belief that their amazing skill set can either save us from the dire situation we’re in or can create that massive new growth idea we’ve been desperately seeking. We believe their stellar track record will rub off on our teams and make us all better at what we do. Sure those things might happen.
Usually what happens though is we bring that high performer in, they burn brightly at first, and then they either sputter or get frustrated and quit. Those are the problems you cause. How? It’s pretty simple…
To successfully hire high performers, you have to first understand the near-term rationale for hiring them and also think through the longer term implications of their personal growth rate relative to opportunities the organization can provide.
We usually hire high performers to fix something that’s broken or create something brand new that didn’t exist before. Prior to hiring them, clearly articulate what the near-term need is, how you’ll measure success, and why that high performer’s skill set and background are ideal for solving that near term problem.
If during this assessment you find you don’t have to hire a high performer, then don’t. If you have the talent already in the organization, give someone else a shot even if they’ve never done that job before. You’ll save money and grow the talent you already have on hand.
If the job does require a high performer, be sure to spell out these near term objectives to them during the interviewing process. These aren’t the kinds of people you hire to make the donuts every day. They’re movers and shakers. And if they don’t see how this role allows them to shake and that they can move after they’ve achieved the goal, you’ll have a hard time hiring them.
The Future Growth Path
Let’s assume the opportunity you define above is interesting enough to attract that high performer. Hit fast forward to a point when they’ve achieved the goal. The question quickly becomes “now what?”
If you don’t have an answer ready for that question, you’re already creating a flight risk. The high performer is looking for advancement and challenge. If you can’t offer it, they’ll go to another organization that can provide it. The more thorough you are about thinking through where this person will go after they’ve achieved their initial goal, the higher the chance you’ll have a motivated and excited employee.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen many organizations hit a growth plateau and they don’t have any new challenges for their high performers. In many cases, they hired too many high performers at once. When those individuals grew and were ready for larger roles, those roles simply weren’t available due to the growth plateau. I’m sure you can guess what happens next in those scenarios – the high performers bail. Given the cost of hiring, training, and knowledge transfer you can’t afford to create those situations.
Before you go on your hiring spree when the economy improves, take a moment to assess both the near term needs of the organization as well as mapping out growth and role progression for the people you’ll hire.
Think 3-4 years out beyond their initial hiring. If you can provide compelling opportunities all along that path, you’ll likely be successful in hiring high performers. If not, you’ll be turning them over like pancakes. And to be clear – that scenario leaves both sides feeling burned.
What successes and failures have you seen as organizations hire high potential candidates? Please share your thoughts and help your fellow readers!
I read this and thought "Wow" because I just read something similar in Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "What the Dog Saw." He addresses a similar concept in a chapter called, "The Talent Myth."
There's nothing wrong with hiring the best and brightest but you need to carefully weigh what comes with the package. We see this clearly played out in sports where all too often the most talented athlete does not make the team better despite super skills.
I agree with you wholeheartedly!
And on a related note I agree with Brian in the earlier comment that talent isn't all its cracked up to be.
I even posted about it myself in "The 4 Attributes of a Great Employee" (http://paulgardner.info/leadership/the-4-attributes-of-a-great-employee/) where I put chemistry with the team, attitude and passion above talent!
How are you defining High Performers??? Isn't the object of hiring someone to do a job to hire the person who will perform the requirements of the job at an optimal level??? So, you are saying Hey everybody let's shoot for mediocrity because if we hire top performers they won't stick around! Wow! What union do you belong to? If you want to grow, you have to have the people who can get you there. You have to challenge and develop them. You have to make sure the person fits the job. If you settle for anything less then a top performer then you are wasting your time, money and effort.
@Brian and Paul – great comments as always. I appreciate the thoughtfulness.
@Anonymous – Yes, the objective is to hire someone who can do the job optimally. I'm defining a high performer as someone who can do that job you're hiring them to do optimally and quickly and be ready to take on challenges that are exponentially larger. I am not shooting for mediocrity – I'm advocating you look beyond the job at hand (as you're stating) and figure out the jobs down the road (which you're not factoring into your response). Let's be clear – not everyone can be a "high performer" as much as we'd like to believe they can. I'm talking about the top 20% of performers in any organization. Sorry but not everyone gets a "Participation Award" like kids in grade school did a few years ago… If you can't challenge those folks in much expanded roles, they'll bail. And no, I don't belong to a union – I encourage you to read some of our archived posts for a better and more holistic view on our perspectives on leadership.
Whenever I read a story like this I think about how many times this exact scenario plays out in the business world. It seems that everyone has a right here right now mindset and is looking for the quick-easy solution.
What better way to solve all of your corporate issues than hire a rainmaker, someone with a proven track record with a long list of credentials. Seldom does the hiring team think about why this person moved around so much and why they seemed so unsettled.
Organizations should strive to hire the brightest people possible but remember two basic things:
You cannot tell them what to do. All you can do is identify the targets, give them their limits of authority and keep them focused.
Highly successful people take risks; make sure that your employee’s risk tolerance matches the organization tolerance
Several years ago there was an article published on focusing on the B players in your organization. Most of the time these team mates are the foundation of the organization and in many instances they are swept aside by the hipo who roles into the organization.
As with most things balance and moderation is the key, the most successful teams are diverse
the reason why most have a right here right now mindset is because most companies are run on a quarterly or annual performance measure.
Ok, so, if you DON'T have a brave new challenge lurking 2 years out on the horizon, then what?
It's great if you can go and create that new challenge for the future as a result of thinking this all through. If not, then what – actively recruit B players that will contribute and not look to move forward? Is that preferable to finding a whole crop of superstars? Or is the underlying message here that "to succeed, you have to hire superstars, and to do that, you have to have huge new plans on the horizon all the time?"
On a macro scale, this all turns into a bit of a pyramid scheme. If 50% of your non-management workers are going to be ready to manage 5 people 5 years from now (and they expect to), then in order to keep them, you'll have to increase your base-level workforce 250% in the next 5 years (if I'm doing the math right) – and again 5 years after that. I feel like this is one of the factors driving irresponsible "growth" in some corporate cultures – where increasing size is forced by taking on ill-fitting mergers and unwise risk just to give "leaders on the bench" new and bigger roles. I don't I know what the answer is to that, but the problem is rather troubling.
actually, i don’t think an organisation requires all superstars. for one thing, while transformative as leaders, they don’t do as well collaboratively or on things that are more ‘holding the fort’. and as you have observed, it is not possible for an organisation to provide enough challenging growth opportunities if all its hires are ‘superstars’.
i think the middle 60% or so of workers are frequently underrated, whereas it is they who often provide the continuity of process and information, and stabilise a new paradigm. sure you need queens, but what is a hive without the worker bees? i don’t think they are ‘B grade’ workers. as someone who is frequently considered to be a potential high performer who has, to HR’s everlasting ire, always avoided seeking ‘high performer posts’ in order to avoid being eventually corralled into a non-technical, managerial career path, i really see my more stable colleagues as indispensable where they are correctly placed in the organisation, even if they aren’t ‘impressive’ and ‘visionary’.
Interesting article. I consider myself a high performer and never really thought about this topic from an employer point of view.
Most employers I've worked for, and there are quite a few for obvious reasons, do not have a plan for when you finish the task you were hired for and want to move on. In my case, they would often have been better of with a specialist then someone like me who has some of the specialist's qualities but a broader perspective as well. High performers can focus on a specific task and do it well. Just not for that long. We're sprinters, not marathon runners.
High performers to my opinion are best of in either large organizations or start-ups. I am now with a large organization and my director keeps me interested by sharing information on future organizational developments and how they relate to my personal growth.
Thanks for the story.
Having been that high performer hired, and having left frustrated more than I care to admit, I thought I would comment.
Do you really want that problem solved? No, I don't mean what you tell the board, or your senior managers at the Monday “blame storming meeting”…you as the leader… do you really want it solved?
Far too often the desire to solve the problem comes with attachments. I am often brought in and I am seen as a heretic as I discuss in my blog: http://nosmokeandmirrors.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/proven-steps-to-profitable-growth-step-one-establish-market-truth/ as current leaders want to tell me, based on their gut, intuition, and “years of experience” HOW to solve the problem. ( if you knew, why did you hire me?)
So I ask again…do you really want it solved? If so bring us in, let us do what we do, and have the emotional intelligence to hear real issues, have meaningful conversations, and help us break through the roadblocks holding your team back.
Far too often I feel like I am on a Star Trek episode with the Borg saying " we will assimilate you, resistance is futile". From my first day senior leaders are trying to politically shape the problem and how to solve it.
If you want someone to solve the problem your way, by all means use one of your current "yes men (women) and save us all the headache.
Mark Allen Roberts
i tend to agree.
it is even more annoying when you are asked – as a favour – to supply solutions and input into what opportunities you see, but when you give an assessment of where things need to change or worked on to fit the team’s *own* future paradigm vision, suddenly you don’t understand the vision (despite actually having worked on developing it), you can’t criticise a or b, or the opinion is rejected because you used the wrong words and phrases. bear in mind, this is an assessment you’re giving as a *favour*, not even as part of your job scope.
i think sometimes people hire superstars in order to have the person agree with the solution that they have already decided (the “correct answer”), rather than to solve the problem or genuinely predict them ahead of time.
It seems like ALL high performers have the same issues more or less. Companies want results – the people don’t want change. Unfortunately, the twain have rarely met.
That’s why I’m a huge fan of communication.
I agree with Mr. Roberts. As a "High Performer" (my definition: someone who can find the solution, create the solution, and successfully implement the solution and knows how to dance around corporate bottlenecks, road blocks and bad attitudes), the issue of leaving is MORE the issue of mixed messages around high performance from management. This does relate to being a "yes" person, not threatening employees who do only 10-25% of the work, but make only a little less, among other things. If management supported and rewarded success there would be no issue. It is MUCH more complex than that. Bottom line: I believe management rewards mediocrity, low performance, and yes people because they require minimum time investment. Opportunities to actually sell product, make money, do WELL are sidelined. This is a more complex issue than presented and frankly, I think you are missing the core issue. Somehow it sounds like you are blaming the high performer. There are studies that discuss the trend in American business to punish people who do well and the psychology behind it.
@Brian W – true you can't always know what opportunities there are 2 years or more out. But both of us know in our gut if there's enough growth or enough turnover above the high performer to enable them to grow into larger roles during that timeframe (regardless of whether we know what the role might be or not). You also raise a good point on doing stupid stuff just to give folks a bigger role. It's just that: stupid. REAL business growth should create the demand for leaders. Then again, if you have great leaders, they're creating growth opportunities and it's a virtuous circle.
@Mark – I agree – if you have high performers, tell them what to solve, not how to solve it. The results can be amazing. I encourage you to spin through our older posts on leading high performing teams – I'd love to get your thoughts on those too.
@Anonymous (and you guys gotta stop using this anonymous thing – makes it hard to know which of you I'm replying to… please leave your names 😉 even fake ones…) – I disagree with your definition of "high performer" – what you're articulating are table stakes in my mind. This is especially true in a competitive labor market. A high performer as I define them is someone who can knock their work out of the park with 50% of their time and use the other 50% to take on growth roles/projects (and take them off their boss' plate so their boss can focus on more important things). High performers function at the NEXT level of responsibility before they're formally given it and they demonstrate a pattern of REGULARLY moving to that level in multiple roles. Again, high performers are the top 10-20% in the organization.
I don't disagree that mixed messages can cause departures. I've seen it happen recently to a colleague. And if you define "rewarding success" not only as comp and ratings but also as larger roles, then yes, I agree that rewarding success will help you retain high performers too.
As far as management rewarding mediocrity, I think that depends on the organization. I've seen cases where you're spot-on in that assessment and other cases where that doesn't apply at all.
Yes this is a complex issue and I'm only covering one aspect of it (thinking longer term as you make hiring decisions). There's only so much we can cover in 600-1000 words 😉
With respect to "blaming the high performer" I think you're completely inaccurate in that assessment. I'm blaming the organization doing the hiring. If the organization doesn't think things through, I believe the high performer is perfectly justified in bailing.
Thanks for the provocative thoughts/observations. Good dialog.
Great post, as always Mike–most organizations do little career thinking or have anything approaching a strategic plan for ongoing employee development. A short-sighted view, to be sure, but as long as employees are expenses and not assets, I expect this will continue.
From the perspective of what a business needs to succeed in a globally competitive economy, it needs emotionally connected partners and not employees with a you-tell-me-what-to-do mindset. "All brains on deck" so to speak. And without a career direction or path where people know they matter and are contributing to the organization, they won't be connected to the business. Why should the organization be the only one to identify the path?
'Career ownership' means that employees take responsibility for identifying where their strengths and talents align most strongly with the organization's needs and direction. This takes knowing themselves, knowing the organization and business environment, aligning the two so that both "win" and making a business case for that career direction. The employee cares about the outcomes and contributes 120% because using strengths energizes like little else.
This does, of course, turn the traditional career path thinking on its head, and is certainly not for every (or maybe even most) organization. Many orgs really don't want their employees looking too closely or knowing "too much"–makes them surly, I guess. And threatens the control.
But the ability to align with what an organization needs has huge value to organizations (and individuals) trying to get ahead of the chaos of the 21st century work world.
I am certain that this is the only way for organizations and people to handle the continual challenges of an ever-changing economic environment. We're not going back to 'how things were,' so why do we hold so tight to old career models that don't benefit anyone?
I encourage readers to check out my blog: http://careerowners.wordpress.com for how to shift from career renter to owner. It's not easy and it entails changing personal and organizational belief systems. The dynamics of the shift are far-reaching and will change the face of 'employment' to one that is flexible enough to ride the rapids of any economy.
Hiring top talent can come with an additional risk – a big ego! I do believe highly talented people can also be great team players. In fact, we insist on both. With call it "expertise without ego".
Your post is thought provoking as usual.
@Janine – wow! You win the prize so far for most comprehensive comment. I'm gonna get you on here as a guest blogger sometime soon!
@John – I like the phrase. I'm gonna steal it. Glad you continue reading and being provoked.
I personally tend to _be_ the "High Performer", and a while back noticed that most companies can't keep my interest for more than two years on average, and so might well exemplify the sort of scenario you illustrate here.
How'd I solve the problem? I went into business on my own. Now, people call me precisely because they _want_ the high performance / high excellence work (I tend to be extremely well known for this in my own little world). Only, they don't _have_ to think about what to do with me after. I'm more than happy to go my own way and perform highly for someone else. When you have a new need come up that requires a "high performer", I'll be there for you.
I make a very good living this way, have excellent relationships with my clients (some of whom are former employers), and I couldn't be happier about the direction my career has taken.
So the question becomes, do you really need your High Performers full time? By calling on such a person when you have need you get the job done. Otherwise, you get to save money by not having to pay someone to be bored all day every day.
I'm afraid I find this post inaccurate in the world I work in. Nice writing style, though.
BTW, do you consider yourself a high performer? If so, why should someone hire you?
@Rick – thanks for reading and for the comment. Glad you enjoy the style (or lack thereof ;).
You ask a great question. In some roles I have been a high performer capable of moving to the next level(s) of responsibility. In other roles, I was a good performer but had a long way to go before I was capable of tackling new challenges. Being a high performer isn't universal from a personal characteristic standpoint – it's situational. For example, Derek Jeter is clearly a high performer in baseball. He's probably a solid performer in golf. I'm thinking as an applied physicist though, he doesn't have any game… Sure he's a hard worker, dedicated, smart, and a great team player. It's just that to be a high performer, you need to have a confluence of skill sets with appropriate opportunities. Make sense?
I'd say if you give your high performers enough of an incentive to stick around they will find their own next challenges if they are really that good.
I think I am a pretty high performer (interesting how no one who posts here considers him/herself a B player!) and one reason I stay in my current position is free private university tuition for my children – which is a six-figure perk if you have several kids.
Another is exactly what Aidan says – management tends to point me at problems and then check in a month later to see if it is done.
So, you are right, the problem with high performers may be YOU, the management. If you feel a need to micromanage people and you are not willing to find a way to pay the price, in some way, to keep those high performers, they'll go somewhere else because they have options.
On the flip side, I remember a colleague, another "high performer" literally pushing a manager out of his office when he came in for the third time that day to check on the progress of a project. I had to close my office door so they could not hear me laughing.
Mike, what a novel approach. Most management consultants write about how to turn companies into high performance organizations, your approach to ditch improving the company and just shoot for mediocrity is definitely unique. How amazingly disingenuous coming from a former McKinsey consultant, of all firms. I doubt you would follow your own advice were you still at McKinsey and responsible for hiring new consultants. I can't imagine McKinsey has ever knowingly hired a consultant that wasn't a high performer or they didn't believe had the ability to be one. When I was in school McKinsey was known for their rigorous hiring process, designed to weed out those who wouldn't be the highest of the high performers.
True, not every job needs a high performer and most companies aren't innovative, high performance organizations. Then again, most companies will be supplanted by more innovative, high performance competitors and those that understand Schumpeter's creative destruction. Most silly consultants would frame the problem as "Why can't a company use high performers effectively?", not you, your advice that most companies shouldn't waste time hiring high performers is definitely unique.
I have a hard time imagining the success of a Google, Intel, Cisco or Microsoft without the raft of high performers they have hired. Also, I doubt most hedge funds and financial firms, like a Goldman Sachs, are out to hire average workers. Just look at the performance of organizations like GE, Goldman Sachs or a JP Morgan Chase through the Great De-levering of 2008/2009 while other firms have finance firms have failed or suffered far, far worse (yes, GE isn't purely a financial firm, but they were heavily exposed). There are many innovative companies, financial companies, other organizations and startups that truly need high performers. Not to mention management consulting companies ( i.e. McKinsey) that need high performers, even right out of college, to go out and advise the great unwashed, low performing masses at Fortune 500 companies.
A much more useful article for an under performing company might be how to hire, manage and retain high performers to help transform an organization. But I suppose competing with the likes of Drucker and Peters might be a bit difficult. And it is generally helpful to have experience in the trenches of innovative, top performing companies working with and managing high performers first. Not the sort of experience one gets as a management consultant at McKinsey parachuting in and out of clients and giving advice to low performers at clients on how to fix problems before taking management positions at non-high performance organizations. Luckily, there are a lot of mediocre companies who can benefit from your advice practical to set the bar lower.
@Anonymous (you know guys, this is getting old when you're brave enough to bash or argue but not brave enough to say who you are – man or woman up, really). Your comments are rigorous and I appreciate the thought you put into them. I do wish, however, you would read more carefully and understand an article before you bash it because you have clearly missed the entire boat on this one (actually you've missed the boat AND the lake it's floating on).
I'm saying that organizations absolutely SHOULD hire high performers but ONLY if they've put conditions for success in place. Further, if they haven't put the conditions for success in place, the company is wasting its time and money because they will hire someone who will eventually leave because they're dissatisfied.
I encourage you to read it again. Given your impressive reading credentials (based on all the books you mention having written) you should be able to pick up on this pretty simple point. 😉
Conversation provoking article at the least 🙂 I think it is an interesting article with a lot to unpack, but I don't have the time to address all the facets today.
I will come out and say that I do not think of myself as a "high performer." I think of myself as a person with an array of strengths, preferences, needs, and areas that I know I need to work on to improve. I also think of myself as having the right set of responsibilities (current), challenges (future), and infrastructure to sustain my overall happiness and career productivity.
The most important issue I see in the article's main concept that I am raising comes directly from my background in sociology and is very easily gleaned from the comments as well: labeling. By creating a relatively simple label, such as "high performer" you immediately invoke a whole set of conventions. For example, now people will debate over what is a "high performer" and others will immediately create an "I'm one, you're not" environment, and others will start assessing whether a "high performer" is better than an "innovator" or a "steady Eddy" etc. I like the sports analogies I saw too. I would love to talk to players, agents, managers and owners to see how the idea of a "franchise player" has limited what can be done in NFL negotiations.
Perhaps you should have a column on the effects of coming up with jingoistic titles! I work in health care and I'm currently examining the notion of categorization and its strengths and weaknesses for measuring quality and outcomes (as we move away from medical piecework to join the rest of industry somewhere out there in the next millenium :-). If we look just at the number of potential medical diagnoses and conditions, and then create a table with all the permutations of combinations (theoretically since the actual number of cells is astronomical in magnitude), many in the industry would guess that the majority of Medicare beneficiaries would fall into a small number of "typical case" cells. Actually, the vast majority of Medicare beneficiaries may be the ONLY person occupying a given cell representing a truly unique set of diagnoses and conditions. So a "one size fits all" model of medical diagnosis and treatment will fail. Doctors really cannot be "trained" in rote fashion to deal with patients by figuring out which simple category the patient falls into and then following the "evidence based" directions for treating them.
The same may be true for employees, employers and positions. The combination of skills, needs, and conditions may be so numerous that trying to create simple labels for candidates or positions and then having a simple set of directions to follow to succeed may be the wrong approach.
We are wired by our very nature (i.e., in our nerves, our hormones, etc.) to read the physical environment and make simple distinctions in a split second (Malcolm Gladwell explores this in tipping point) and so simplistic distinctions really work…but perhaps only for certain simple conditions. Truly complex problems may require more complex notions and thinking. I think Janine is on the right path and agree she would be a good guest blogger.
Don't use too many guests though. I like your thoughts and find I learn something from each post, even if I don't agree with you!
@Dave B. – thanks for the wonderful and thoughtful comment. You raise a ton of great points. It's a good idea to cover a topic of labeling. And you're right – we as humans use labels and categories to put order to the chaos of a very complex world. These simplifying assumptions help us act but at the same time we risk losing critical information. Gladwell also covers some of that stuff in Blink which is a pretty good read too.
As far as guests, I try to ensure I write every week and when we do have a guest it's usually a second post that week (so some weeks we have 1 post, some we have 2). I'm glad you get something from the articles every time even when you disagree – that's clearly an indicator of an open and inquisitive mind. Thanks for being a loyal reader and contributor.
Good analysis – but I believe your conclusion is missing an option. You say
1) If you have other exiting tasks down the line, hire the expert.
2) If you don't have these, don't hire the expert (and don't solve the problem).
I believe your should add another: If you can't see what your expert will be doing in three years time, but you do want your problem solved
3) Hire an expert temporarily (like Shaun).
I consider myself a "high performer" myself, and I work for a consulting company. This ensures me a steady supply of new, challenging tasks, and my customers get their issues resolved without having to worry about what I should be doing next.
Wow. This blog and resulting discussions give me such a sense of relief! I'm struggling right now in a new position, and thought the issues were me not performing to expectations. Instead, I'm doing what I do as a high performer but the expectation is much lower. My management should have hired a younger engineer who can stay heads down and execute entirely focused on the short term without any strategic vision nor foresight. Mark's comments also hit home.
The question now is: how to use this blog to teach management about this situation and learn from it. I think the message would fall on deaf ears.
Anyway, this was GREAT
After skimming through the comments, I think the other issue with thinking before hiring high performers comes down to speed. You might know you need an area resolved, and hire the high performer to resolve the issue. – But the high performer may be looking to solve the issue far ahead of your schedule. This can put coworkers, and other teams on edge. As a high performer, I know I’ve had this effect on people – even my superiors.
I’ve found strong communication in this area helpful. For me – I pin down the end result, and build the steps from there (including personal achievement deadlines). Strong communication from the hiring company is key.
I can’t speak for other high performers, but my goal is to no longer be needed. I like the challenge of cleaning up messy situations and letting someone else take the reigns.
Who knows.. Maybe I watched too much Mighty Mouse.
Someone clearly is not a high performer if they are dysfunctional so by definition the proposition is flawed. The point is that top performers are just that, people who deliver great results not people who deliver problems along with great results. I remember sitting listening to Jack Welch, to paraphrase….. if the results are good and the behaviour is bad fire them…. sooner or later they will cause you problems