When you’re recruiting, what do you look for? Someone who’s perfect on paper? Who already knows everything they need for the job?
Increasingly, leaders are prioritising something else: potential.
Mostly, I think this is a good thing. Looking for aptitude and attitude over on-paper qualifications can bring new perspectives into teams, and skills can always be learned.
But this focus on potential has some risks. If it’s the only way you assess your team members, you’re doing them a disservice. As Kim Scott puts it in Radical Candor, “I don’t think there is any such thing as a low-potential human being.”
So what can you look for instead, to help bring in the right people and maximise your team’s effectiveness? One of the key things is growth trajectory. How high is someone aiming, how fast are they trying to get there, and how can you get the best of them while they’re with you?
Rock stars and superstars
I want to start by making one thing clear: a steep growth trajectory is not necessarily better than a gradual one. In most teams, you need people on both of those paths. And people will be on a different one at different times in their life.
Scott describes those on a steep growth trajectory as “superstars”, ambitious and driven people who “need to be challenged and given new opportunities to grow constantly.” Those on a gradual trajectory are “rock stars”, who “love their work. They have found their groove. They don’t want the next job if it will take them away from their craft.”
In so many industries, we hold up drive and ambition as the ultimate positive attributes. But in reality, the majority of teams need a balance of the two. Rock stars become masters of their role, often hold important institutional knowledge, and bring stability. Superstars are change agents, often the source of innovation, and bring passion which can boost everyone’s morale.
Keeping your superstars shining
When people are in the right sort of role for their growth trajectory, they’re likely to perform better. With superstars at the top of their game, you might fall into the trap of trying to keep them where they are. They’re doing a great job, after all, you don’t want to lose them! But this will squash the drive and ambition that make them so impressive. Force them to stay where they are, and they’ll become unmotivated and unhappy – or quit.
What should you do instead? Keep them challenged. Give them new opportunities. Figure out where they could go next, and who could replace them. Scott describes them as “shooting stars—my team and I were lucky to have them in our orbit for a little while, but trying to hold them there was futile.”
Recognising your rock stars
For both superstars and rock stars, don’t assume that the management track will feel like a reward. Find out what they want next. As Scott explains, “When management is the only path to higher compensation, the quality of management suffers, and the lives of the people who work for these reluctant managers become miserable.”
For high-performing rock stars, recognition and reward are key. If they’ve been doing a great job for five years, it’s still just as deserving of notice. Arguably even more so! Think about what your organisation can offer – tenure awards or bonuses? Increased flexibility or benefits? These can be great ways of keeping motivation up for people on gradual growth trajectories.
Understanding low performance
Scott outlines five different reasons why even your most driven team members might not be performing well:
Wrong role Are they in a job which fits their skills, interests, experience, growth trajectory? If not, which role would be better – and how can you help them get there?
New role If they’re taking longer than expected to adapt, ask yourself whether they’ve been given the right training to clearly understand the role and expectations.
Too much, too fast Especially when it comes to superstars, it can be all too easy to assume they can just handle whatever is thrown at them. But they’re human too!
Personal problems If the dip in performance is sudden, or not obviously work-related, it may be a personal problem. If you’ve done your job right, they’ll feel safe explaining this to you, and you can support them through what is hopefully a temporary blip.
Poor fit Sometimes the way a person works just doesn’t mesh well with a company’s culture. There’s nothing wrong with either side, but there’s also not much to be done.
Alyse Ashton: Understanding Motivation
As a coach, I’m often focused on figuring out what motivates my clients – and teaching them to do the same with their team. Alyse Ashton of leadership development consultancy Eye 2 Eye agrees: motivation is key. Growth trajectory is a facet of that, of course, but not the only one. We sat down for a wide-ranging discussion on the topic; here are just a few of Alyse’s key insights.
Managers can’t motivate team members. They can only create the conditions in which their team members can feel motivated.
Every person has their own motivations, so never assume yours and your team members’ are the same. Ask your team members – what brought you here? What keeps you here? What do you most enjoy about your work? What frustrates you?
After creating good conditions for motivation, check in. If you’ve built good relationships you’ll be able to do this without it feeling intrusive, even if something personal seems to be affecting a team member’s motivation.
Leaders are like conductors. You need to understand the music, and know your orchestra. But you don’t need to know how to play every instrument for that! Micromanaging leads to dissonance, not harmony, and frustrates rather than motivates.
Empty words destroy motivation – so always follow through. Don’t say “my door is always open” then do nothing to show you actively want feedback. If you ask people to let you know what needs changing, then never change any of it (or explain why you can’t), your words ring hollow.
Resilience is key.
Psychological safety is key. We are social animals, and feeling connected, supported and heard can give us a real motivation boost. Conversely, shooting down or shaming someone when they open up is a sure-fire way of destroying motivation.
Every team will hit dips in motivation. In tough times, problem solve as a team as much as you can; focus on connection and support; and model vulnerability and self care. It’s hard to be a beacon of determination and motivation when you’re burned out!