Tuesday Morning Focal Point

High Performers; Holding them Accountable

March 7, 2022

We often think of the need to hold others accountable in the context of those who are not executing well or fully on their KPI’s and deliverables.  Yes, for sure, accountability mechanisms and finding ways to support improved outcomes for this cohort is critical. This is a complex endeavor. It can take a lot of work for management to find out what is underneath the lack of execution. Further efforts are required to find the right levers to get around resistance, motivate and then get better productivity. 

high performers relish accountability

However, holding high performers accountable is a whole other matter.  Yet, it is just as important and perhaps even more important, from a retention standpoint.  If you don’t have the right joint accountability mechanisms in place for your highest achievers,  you get a range of other problems too long to list.  The main one though being you won’t hold on to them.  High performers relish accountability. This doesn’t mean being asked to report minute by minute on their achievements. Nor does it mean being watched over.  It is a different type of accountability and requires different processes and mechanisms.

I am typing this on the heels of a coaching call with a business owner, who has been working hard over the last 9 months to become a more effective leader.  At the start, one of his chief personal complaints was that he was struggling to know how to lead effectively in getting his senior management to perform.  It’s been a lot of hard work on his part over this time period, and now he has transformed in many ways as a leader.  He is leading far more effectively, and his senior team is performing at a high level.  This is resulting in a lot of great outcomes.

In our call, we talked about the leadership qualities from our psychometrics that he would need to draw on most in the next few months with his senior team.  He confidently chose two good ones and had great justification as to why, at this time, they are needed most.  Then we reflected on how he’d continue to hold his senior team accountable.  At first he was a bit confused, as he figured he had already completed that, now that they were performing as A players.  He’s now paying them more, has significantly increased a range of benefits and voila…now it’ll just go like clock work, right?

No, not so much.   Joint accountability has to continue. Recognition and reward are part of that.  Here are a handful of ways to advance accountability for high performers.  With each level, I am going to give a simple example of a child coloring a picture, to illustrate the advances in the levels. 

 Acknowledgement for high performers

Level 1 – Acknowledgement / Praise for High Performers

This one is easy and should happen regularly.  Remember, the most powerful form of reinforcement is intermittent reinforcement.  Even high performers need and enjoy acknowledgement or praise. Even though it’s not needed everyday for survival like it sometimes is for our lower performers. 

Example – Son, what a great picture you colored

 Recognition for the High Performers

Level 2 – Recognition for the High Performer

Recognition is next level, as it not only gives praise, but it goes deeper into unpacking and fleshing out in a more detailed way what is noticed.  At this level, you demonstrate your noticing and your understanding of the “how” and some of the ways the high performer achieved.  It’s more than good job, it’s good job because you….and you….and you…

Example – Son, what a great coloring job.  Daddy really loves that you chose blue here, and you did such a nice job of staying in the lines over here and the way you were so creative with the lines and the dots is neat.  I sure notice the details. 

 Inspiration for the High Performers

Level 3 – Inspiration for the High Performers

Here do what is in the first two level and now link the achievement to the company’s strategic direction.  This is where you acknowledge which quarterly or annual priority the achievement is helping us execute on broadly.  You may also do this by pointing out how the way in which the achievement was executed aligns with company core values. You could also outline how this is getting us closer to our BHAG.  If you these achievers to stay high achievers, ensure they understand that they are actively helping work towards achieving broader outcomes on a macro level. 

Example – Great painting son and I can you see you becoming better and better all the time.  You are showing so many great skills like an artist.  For a four-year-old, your coloring is so great, and you are learning so many new things that show me your are becoming a really big boy.  I am so proud of you. 

Advancement for the High Performers

Level 4 – Advancement for a High Performer

At the advancement level, this can mean a range of things.  Most importantly, this is about advancing the achievement, the creation, the innovation or whatever value add has been realized.  We can advance this in the organization through a strategic dialogue around how to take this good practice and disseminate it to other areas of the business to replicate. 

We can also do advancement by putting it on display for others.  This might be by highlighting it in a report to the board or boasting about it on our website. Advancement can be used in business development as an example of how the company creates and adds value.  We can do advancement by asking the question, “what can we learn from this that can help us advance our strategy into new areas?” 

Finally, at this level, advancement can literally be the “advancement” of the high performer into greater levels of delegated greater accountability, authority and broad influence.  Sometimes advancement leads to a promotion. 

Example – Great job coloring son.  Wow, I bet your coloring is just going to keep getting better and better.  This makes me want to get you a new coloring book where you can keep doing what you do so well!  Would you mind if I take this to my office and pin it on the wall? Maybe we could frame it and display it in our family room to show all of our friends when they come over.  I wonder if one day you will have a job where you need to be good at being creative. You are the most creative four-year-old I’ve ever known. 

These levels of accountability responses reinforce achievement and drive even greater achievement.  They also tend to encourage lower performers to performer better, in some cases.  You don’t always have to be at level four with every achievement that your high performers complete.  However, you should consider where and when you want to utilize each of these levels along the way. 

Cameron’s Call to Action

  1. Start by identifying your high achievers and what, in particular their recent greatest achievements have been. 
  2. Review your recent practices in terms of the mechanisms you use to reinforce joint accountability, pertaining to your high performers
  3. What level do you meet them at?  How are you doing in terms of ensuring you are grabbing from all four levels periodically.  Be certain that you are leveraging their excellence at level 4, when it matters most.  This benefits the firm related to their contribution. This also goes a long way to reinforce a culture of high performance and accountability throughout.

Cameron is an Executive Coach and Consultant specializing in business growth and creating psychologically healthy workplaces.