How to handle high achievers

These are the things we need to talk about: retention, reward and recognition, succession planning and in some cases, the inevitable attrition

Subroto Bagchi

A familiar story in most start-ups today is that they have attracted top talent in the beginning and have gone past the basic survival stage.

About two years ago, I hired a young, brilliant employee for my early stage start-up. He’s one of our rising stars. He constantly wants to take on bigger responsibilities, but I sense his ambition may trip him up. For one, he lacks patience and the will to hunker down on a longish assignment, and is constantly looking for a new high. How do I handle this eager beaver?

This is a familiar story in most start-ups that have attracted top talent in the beginning and have gone past the basic survival stage as you clearly have. The difficulty in dealing with the problem (or opportunity) on hand is the inherent complexity of what we call a Type A personality multiplied by the high-adrenaline atmosphere of a start-up. The two attract each other, depend on each other for success, but can very well become irrelevant to each other at a later stage.

The starting point, however, is to recognize the all-important aspect of top-talent management that most start-ups relegate as big company stuff.

I always maintain that, in a few matters, always pretend that you are big and do the things that the best of the big guys do; one among those is a planned process of managing top talent.

In the case of the high achiever you described, these are the things we need to talk about: retention, reward and recognition, succession planning and in some cases, the inevitable attrition that isn’t always a bad thing.

To retain high achievers, start by recognizing them as individuals. Their pulse, needs, highs and lows are unique.

Consider regular, formal conversation on their work, discuss what may be going right or wrong, how you could help. Importantly, let them know that the organization goals don’t get met just because their piece is neatly done. Draw their attention to the larger picture so that they know that the success they are delivering is not complete without the other pieces of the puzzle coming through. They must own some of that as well. For example, a great sales guy may not realize the criticality of seeing things through to smooth execution by the delivery team.

When you take the time to engage with these overachievers, they begin to see the 360-degree picture, realize dependencies and then they build respect for the idea of patience.

That said, some of them do have a tremendous capacity for boredom. One way to deal with them is retention by rotation. Assume an 18-24 month cycle in the present job for such individuals; speak to them about future possibilities; but keep reminding them it is not a done deal, that it is all subject to a set of conditions, one of them being the smooth transition to the next person when the time comes. That way, the individual realizes the larger implication of what otherwise is a me, myself and I conversation.

Next, let us talk about reward and recognition. For key talent, it is important to design a reward and recognition system that is customized, but not ad hoc. It is important to have instruments for long-term retention, but at the same time not overdo the idea of postponed gratification. If the initial public offering is five years away, do not think you can keep people motivated entirely based on a stock-option plan.

Take expert help from an HR consulting organization and create a system that incentivizes good performance through good behaviour in the midterm as well. It is very important that you formalize these arrangements. This is one area in which many entrepreneurs keep things informal. This is a big reason why top talent loses trust, and often this leads to unnecessary downstream heartburn.

Now comes the issue of succession planning. There is always the possibility of losing top talent, not always because the Type A is restless with you; the individual could be restless in his or her own life. What if there is a heartbreak? What if a parent needs medical attention and the employee must move back to Noida? Or what if Alibaba has shown him the magic lamp? You’ve got to know, at any point in time, who next? Do it in a formal, structured manner.

Amid it all, maintain equanimity. Sometimes the young and restless are capable of stumping you with a curveball. Like this one here: one day, I was at my desk when the 20-something, extremely capable guy asked to see me. At the time, he was a regional accountant; he asked me if he could be the chief financial officer (CFO) in the next three years. I liked and admired him a lot, but didn’t think he would become a CFO in less than 10 years. I told him the truth.

Why not, he demanded. Wasn’t he capable?

It was my turn to ask him a question: at what age does Mother Nature make us capable of having a baby?

Foxed for a moment, he gathered his wits and replied, 13, maybe 14.

Why then, I asked him, do we defer parenthood until in our late 20s? At 13 or 14 one may be biologically capable of reproduction, but that does not make the person capable of parenting. At this moment he was capable of having a baby, not raising one. He understood the logic, but wasn’t happy with it. He left.

I am sure, now in his early 40s, somewhere out there, he is telling the same story to someone half his age.

Read an unabridged version at www.foundingfuel.com

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