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Bruce Tulgan: What are high performers looking for in a boss?

In our ongoing research, we find two giant misconceptions about high performers in the workplace:

1. High performers dont need to be managed.
2. High performers dont want to be managed closely.

The reality, however, is that high performers need managers too...
Like everyone else, high performers have bad days, sometimes go in the wrong direction, and have lapses in judgment or integrity. Even superstars need guidance, direction, support, and encouragement. They need to be challenged and developed. Plus, superstars often want to know that someone is keeping track of their work and looking to reward them.

... and they want to be managed well by a great boss.
High performers want a boss who is strong and engaged, who knows exactly who they are and what they are doing. High performers want a boss who lets them know that they are important and that their work is important. They want a boss who practices the art of real empowerment---providing strong leadership through steady guidance, direction, and support.

So, how do you become a great boss?

  1. Spend time with your high performers talking about the work
    Most self-starting high performers probably dont need to meet with you every day. But they probably need to talk with you about their work more often than they currently do. And its important to remember that high performers will definitely need to talk with you more often when they are new to a job, or working on a new task or project. Check in regularly to ensure that there are no obstacles in the employees way that will prevent her from getting lots of work done very well, very fast, all day long. Answer questions as they come up. Request input.Learn from what they are learning on the front line. Strategize together. Provide advice, support, motivation, and, yes, even inspiration once in a while. Generally, keep making sure things are going as well as you think they are!

  2. Set them up for success every step of the way
    Often the best posture to assume with high performers is to think of yourself as a shrewd client and the employee as a professional youve hired. Be a very aggressive facilitator:
    - Ask basic questions: Can you do this? Are you sure? What do you need from me?
    - Ask probing questions: How are you going to do that? How are you going to start? What steps will you follow?
    - Ask short, focalizing questions: How long will this step take? How long will that step take? What does your checklist look like?
    - Listen to what the employee says carefully and quickly evaluate how well the employee understands the requirements of the task at hand.
    - Pay close attention to identify any gaps in her approach.
    - Keep asking the employee to think out loud until the approach she imagines is gap free. Never forget that your job is to make sure that every single employee knows every step of the way exactly what is expected of her, what she is supposed to do, and how she is supposed to do it.

  3. Help them grow and develop
    The real trick to helping a high performer grow and develop is figuring out for that person with each assignment: How big should the goals be? How far out should the deadlines be? How many guidelines are necessary with each goal? Heres the key: Start small. As the high performer demonstrates proficiency and performance, gradually increase the amount and importance of the work you assign. Next you can continue to empower him by using project planning tools together. Help him develop long-term project plans, complete with clear benchmarks along the way. Focus your one-on-one meetings on evaluating his progress toward each benchmark.
    Provide feedback and recommend adjustments every step of the way. Over time, he will be able to handle even bigger, more complex projects. All the while, you teach this individual that self-development involves a constant accounting: What is expected of me? How is my performance measuring up to those expectations? What can I do to improve? What do I need to revise and adjust? Zeroing in on one small problem after another is what ongoing continuous performance improvement actually looks like.

  4. Help them earn what they need and want
    You want to be generous and flexible with your employees, especially with your high performers. Start looking at the discretionary resources that are within your disposal already. Use your power over work conditions; scheduling; recognition; exposure to decision makers; deciding what tasks are assigned to whom, who gets extra training opportunities, where each employee works, and with what coworker; and so on. Make sure every high performer knows exactly what she has to do to earn rewards-great or small. When a high performer says, I dont want to work on Thursday, tell her she needs to do A, B, and C by Wednesday at midnight. You are giving the employee control over her rewards by spelling out exactly what she needs to do to earn them. Youll have to monitor, measure, and document that the employee completed A, B, and C by Wednesday at midnight. If she has, youll have the opportunity to reward her in a very powerful way. Make sure they know that special rewards are not to be taken for granted and always remains contingent on his performance and your discretion.

So, what kind of boss are you going to be?
Be the boss who says, Great news, Im the boss! I consider that a sacred responsibility. Im going to set you up for success every step of the way. Im going to help you find the shortcuts, avoid the pitfalls, and follow the best practices. Count on me. When you need something, Im going to help you find it. When you want something, Im going to help you earn it. Youll be a magnet for high performers... and low performers will run for the hills.

Bruce Tulgan (New Haven, CT) is the author or coauthor of numerous books including his most recent, NOT EVERYONE GETS A TROPHY (2009), the best-seller ITS OKAY TO BE THE BOSS (2007), and the classic MANAGING GENERATION X (1995). Since founding the management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Tulgans weekly video newsletter is available for free at

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Bruce Tulgan: What are high performers looking for in a boss?