Making stars shine

Top performers in workplace thrive on challenges


Star workers are often made - not born.

And while identifying top performers is relatively easy, most managers know that helping them grow is an important part of keeping good workers satisfied.

Workplace experts say the most successful managers use a variety of factors to help encourage star workers. That includes recognizing and rewarding excellent performance, providing clear opportunities to move up and tuning in to what employees need.

Keeping them challenged, providing avenues to let them have strong input on the company's direction and making the work fun and flexible are other key ways to keep high performers happy and productive.

"Stars go about their jobs in fundamentally different ways," said Robert Kelley, adjunct professor of business at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business and author of How To Be a Star at Work, Nine Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed. "We can teach people the range of things stars do."

First and foremost, high performers want to feel challenged, said Marti Smye, market leader of coaching development and change management for Korn/Ferry International, an executive recruitment firm. And they need plenty of guidance from someone who can help them build their career.

"Promote them at 80 percent of their skills so they have the 20 percent range to acquire," she said. "They want to take on more and more. Be sure they have strong mentoring and coaching opportunities."

That's why reaching out to strong performers and encouraging them to think outside the box to solve problems is a big way managers can let them know their opinions matter, workplace experts say.

For example, when a mortgage banking company needed to cut costs, Kelley said a top worker pointed out that everyone left his computer on all the time. The worker got 95 percent of the people to turn off their computers when they weren't using them and saved the company a quarter of a million dollars.

"Managers spend so much time with underperformers," Kelley said.

"They should take time on a regular basis to tell the high performers, `We are glad you are here,'" he added.

Never assume anything, Kelley added.

What's important to one person may not be important to someone else. Managers need to spend time getting to know the needs of individuals, he said.

In his more than two years at financial services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Richard Ronayne has grown in his role as a senior associate in the Baltimore office. The 27-year-old has been nominated for the company's prestigious Chairman's Award, and his success at work has brought him plenty of recognition, according to his supervisor Andy Elliott, a partner at the firm.

That recognition, in part, is why Ronayne says he can't imagine ever leaving the company.

"People always get approached by recruiters, [with other potential job offers]" said Ronayne, who oversees about 10 people, depending on the project they're tackling. "But there is so much opportunity here. All the programs PwC has to attract and retain people. ... I don't see any reason to leave. I plan to spend my career at PwC."

That kind of loyalty is an important building opportunity for a company, experts say, since top performers often have a range of skills and talents, which makes them versatile and attractive to competitors.

Star performers leave for three reasons, Kelley said. The work isn't good enough, the colleagues aren't exciting enough or the management style doesn't work.

"Money is down toward the bottom of the list," he said. "That is not what makes people jump."

Losing good workers is always hard, managers say, because it's so hard to replace them.

"When you lose a star, you not only lose that individual's skills and talents," Smye said. "You lose their network, internally and externally. ... You have to help someone new get the knowledge of the company culture. They need to learn what can and can't be done."

Studies show that the generation of workers known as millennials (those in their early 20s who are now joining the full-time work force) have shown they have different priorities than their older counterparts.

"They want more answers," said Shannon Schuyler, managing director of PricewaterhouseCoopers' alumni relations, noting the company has been conducting twice-yearly employee surveys since 2002. "They want to know how their work will affect the outcome."

An Emerging Workforce Study conducted by recruiting firm Spherion Professional Services Group shows that a strong work-life balance is important in these days of dual-income families, said Brendan Courtney, Spherion regional vice president.

John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an outplacement consulting firm, agrees: "It's important to offer more flexible hours and the option of telecommuting one or two days a week," he said. "Companies are giving people more flexible hours so you can get home at 3 [p.m.] to see your kid's soccer game, or even job-sharing."

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