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We all love a rockstar developer. They crank out code, solve complex problems, and seemingly keep the digital ship afloat. But equating “high performance” with pure output is a dangerous oversimplification.

This article explores the nuances of managing high-performers, moving beyond surface-level metrics to understand what truly motivates and challenges these individuals. We’ll explore why even the most talented developers need guidance, how to set crystal-clear expectations, and why neglecting their development is a recipe for losing your top talent. Get ready to level up your management game and unlock the full potential of your high-performing tech team.

Defining High Performers: It’s More Than Just Results

When we talk about “high performers,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of simply looking at who gets the most done.

To accurately assess performance, we need to consider the experience and skill level of each individual.  This is where “leveling guides” or “rubrics” come into play. These documents outline the expected skills and responsibilities for each level within your team.

For example, a junior engineer might be expected to demonstrate proficiency in a specific coding language, while a senior engineer might be expected to lead complex projects and mentor junior team members. By using these guides, we can compare apples to apples and ensure that our expectations are aligned with each individual’s experience.

In the context of this discussion, we are considering “high performers” as team members who consistently exceed expectations and contribute significantly to the organization’s success. Understanding and identifying these individuals requires a nuanced approach that considers various factors, including performance levels, experience, and the distinction between potential and current performance.

More can be read on this differentiation in this great Medium article by Christopher Haag.

Why You Need to Manage High Performers

You might think high performers can manage themselves. They’re brilliant, driven, and get things done. But even the best need direction. Without it, they can:

  • Plateau: Even the most talented individuals need a coach to push them further.
  • Drift into irrelevance: Without clear goals and responsibilities, high performers can end up in roles with no real impact.
  • Burn out: Left unchecked, high performers can work themselves to exhaustion.

Don’t be intimidated by their talent. Remember, even Tiger Woods has a coach. Your role is to help them reach their full potential, not to be better than them at everything.

Don’t Take Their Brilliance for Granted

High performers can make your life easier, but don’t forget about them. If you do, you might find yourself staring at their resignation letter.

Career planning is crucial. Understand their aspirations and help them get there. If you keep throwing problems at them without a clear path for growth, they’ll feel undervalued and directionless.

Set Crystal Clear Expectations

High performers should be compensated well and have high expectations placed upon them. Don’t be afraid to give them tough targets and hold them accountable.

“Most organizations and managers are quite good at performance managing people who are doing nothing, or close to nothing. Very few organizations are good at the gradated set of expectations above that, especially differentiated between great and greater.” (Stay SaaSy)

This means you need to articulate specific expectations for high performers, not just in terms of output, but also in terms of their actions and contributions.

Don’t Shy Away from Critical Feedback

Some managers avoid giving feedback to high performers, either because they’re unsure what to say or fear a negative reaction. This is a mistake.

High performers need feedback to grow. If you don’t provide it, you’re doing them a disservice. Be direct, honest, and constructive.

Pay Them What They’re Worth

Don’t be afraid to pay your top performers generously. They deserve it. Some worry that transparency about pay differences might cause friction. However, the opposite is often true. When employees know that top performance is rewarded, it can actually motivate everyone to strive for excellence.

Fair compensation shows you recognize their value their contributions.

Don’t Expect Them to Be Superhuman

Remember, everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Play to their strengths and provide support where they need it. Don’t try to force them into roles that don’t suit their skills.

For example, a brilliant coder might not be a natural project manager. Recognize this and provide the necessary support or consider bringing in someone with complementary skills.

Nip Behavioral Issues in the Bud

Address any behavioral issues early on. Don’t let bad habits fester. High performers are not exempt from the rules. If they’re causing problems, address them directly and decisively.

Watch Out for Pessimism and Stubbornness

High performers are used to being right. This can sometimes lead to unreasonable pessimism or stubbornness when faced with new challenges. They might mistake their lack of knowledge for impossibility.

As one article highlights:

“They’re so used to being right, that they confuse not personally knowing with a thing not being knowable. What’s worse, they’re so good that few people can tell them when they’re wrong on this diagnosis.” .” (Stay SaaSy)

If you spot this, coach them directly. Help them understand that not knowing something is okay and encourage them to embrace new challenges.

Recognize When They’ve Plateaued

Sometimes, high performers stop growing. This could be due to reaching their potential in their current role, the role evolving beyond their skillset, or simply a lack of motivation.

If you notice a decline in performance, have an honest conversation. Acknowledge their past contributions and work together to find a new path that reignites their passion. This might involve a new role, additional responsibilities, or even a step back to reassess their goals.

Specific Challenges in Tech Teams

Tech teams present unique challenges. Here are some common issues and how to address them:

– Lack of Prioritization: High-performing developers often excel at execution but struggle with prioritization. They might jump between tasks or lose interest as projects near completion. Encourage them to focus on finishing tasks and help them develop prioritization skills.

– Boredom and Restlessness: High performers thrive on challenges. If they feel underutilized, they can become bored and restless, making them more likely to seek new opportunities. Keep them engaged with challenging projects, encourage them to mentor others, and ensure they have opportunities for growth and learning.

– Undermining Senior Leadership: Occasionally, high-performing developers might undermine or ignore their team leads. This can stem from various factors, including personality clashes, differing opinions, or a perceived lack of competence in the lead. Address this head-on. Investigate the root cause, mediate conflicts, and consider restructuring the team if necessary.

As one commenter in a Quora discussion on this topic suggests:

“One other possibility is to change the team structure to be more self-managing, so that the team makes more decisions as a team, and is less hierarchical. This may involve finding a new lead or just making them peers.”

Key Takeaways

Managing high-performing tech teams requires a proactive and nuanced approach. Here are the key takeaways:

  • Don’t neglect them: High performers need management just like everyone else.
  • Set clear expectations and provide regular feedback: Don’t shy away from constructive criticism.
  • Recognize and reward their contributions: Fair compensation and recognition are essential.
  • Play to their strengths and address their weaknesses: Provide support and resources to help them grow.
  • Address behavioral issues promptly and decisively: Don’t let bad habits fester.
  • Watch out for pessimism and stubbornness: Encourage them to embrace new challenges.
  • Recognize when they’ve plateaued and help them find a new path: Keep them engaged and motivated.

By following these guidelines, you can create a thriving environment where your high-performing tech team can flourish and drive your company’s success.

If you are looking to grow your tech team, please either contact us here and/or reach out to Louise Ogilvy on Linkedin.

 

Resources:

https://chaag.medium.com/managing-high-performers-e4f9c2f25b34

https://staysaasy.com/startups/2024/05/08/managing-high-performers.html#:~:text=Most%20organizations%20and%20managers%20are,differentiated%20between%20great%20and%20greater.

https://www.quora.com/How-do-I-handle-high-performing-software-developers-who-are-undermining-and-ignoring-their-senior-lead