Ask any executive about overachievers and they will tell you that they’d love one of these and would probably pay a premium for one. They can likely name several that they’ve had over the years. These are the movers and shakers – often the “go to” people if you want anything done. They are driven, determined, passionate, energetic, and yes – often referred to as “A players.” Simply put – they are overachievers.
By their shear DNA, they need to be led differently if you are to fully utilize their contribution to the team. In particular, keep a watchful eye out for quirks such as unrealistic expectations, working insane hours, and risk taking at any cost to succeed as quicksand to their success.
Being very intimate with this topic, I am often reminded of a handful of past savvy managers and supervisors who kept me from losing my perspective and becoming obsessed, turning a team to dysfunction, and ultimately undermining my performance. My best managers over the years took the time to understand my personality and build a trust-centered relationship with me. They ingrained into my mind and heart that they truly had my best interest in mind at all times. They curbed my destructive tendencies while continuing to develop my positive skills.
Looking back, there is a five-step process my best leaders over the past 20 years have all had in common. You could also say the exact opposites for my worst managers.
Step 1: Identify me. As early as in my first job interview, Lee Nicholson at SiliconGraphics (SGI) recognized me as an overachiever. Maybe it was the 28 phone calls over a three-month period to get that interview or the fact that in less than three months as a consultant I was offered a full-time role. He saw that I took the initiative to get things done and identified early on that my self-motivating tendencies took me beyond traditional boundaries of the job description to solve problems. Others have identified that I typically forget to communicate vital information, appreciate the shortest route to the most efficient and effective option, and tend to leave the details to other members of the team. So, what are the four ways to spot an overachiever? Drive, high expectations, impatience, and good judgment.
Step 2: Understand my personality type. Over the years, completing challenging tasks above and beyond expectations has often provided me with the same physical and mental high as a drug. That same high often pushes you to continue to raise the bar, thus creating boredom and a constant need for the next challenge. Overachievers want more than just pats on the back. They have little patience for protocol and demand more of a manager’s time than others. Although often appearing scattered and unable to focus, it is often a sign of an overachiever’s intentional focus on one task. (By the way, because they hate to be wrong, they don’t often respond well to criticism.)
Step 3: Lead by inspiring me, not commanding me. In the past 20 years, I have never liked being told what to do. Conversely, managers who involved me in their decisions, planning and effective execution whenever possible got more value out of me than they ever paid for. Bruce Kasanoff, my CEO in New York, often provided emotional coaching such as praise for work well done. Great CEOs understand that perceived or real barriers will bog down and frustrate overachievers; as such, they leverage their status to cut through red tape and pave the way to ensure success. Executives who make business processes easier for overachievers allow fast tracking of vital projects. Ken Marcks, another great manager of mine in the mid 90’s, followed through with his commitments because he understood his word earned him trust and respect. His loyalty also emphasized good work ethics in “not running over people in an effort to achieve.” Christian Gheorghe, my CEO in Denver, tapped into my creativity for new ideas. He always kept an open mind and was receptive to new ideas by understanding that overachievers often take problems and come up with innovative solutions.
One way to keep overachievers happy is to really understand their long-term goals and figure out ways to tie those into current projects and initiatives. As long-term reciprocal loyalty between employer and employee quickly becomes a thing of the past, by aligning the overachiever’s personal goals and objectives with those of the organization’s, a managers will achieve the desired results. Overachievers continually look for the next promotion. If they can’t shine, they won’t stay.
Step 4: Make it safe for me to fail. We are categorically risk takers. After all, that is how we have achieved on unrealistic goals in our past. We hate to fail even though we set our sights too high. Setbacks make us feel inferior and savvy managers who help us accept failure – not punish us for it – reinforce the idea that every failure is an earned experience. Failure produces a wealth of ideas and reinforced confidence gets us back to swinging for the fence. But buyer beware: high risk taking overachievers are very susceptible to burnout. They often come in early, stay late, and lose perspective on any notion of a balance.
Step 5: Turn me into a team player. Though many overachievers prefer to work alone to prevent getting bogged down with bureaucracy, in many situations, collaboration is essential. Some of my best CEOs and board members in the past have leveraged the following to help me fit into the team:
- Taught me to listen and share problem solving.
- Paired me with complementary skill sets.
- Developed a coaching culture in which they have engaged me to mentor and coach others and get to know myself in the process.
To sum it up, this is a classic overview of the critical components of a relationship-centric culture. Getting the most from overachievers demands constant communication and requires managers and leaders alike to possess strong fundamental listening and communication skills; the ability to develop a mentoring culture of shared insights and information; and most crucial – the patience, time and attention required for these overachievers who, when nurtured, can accomplish twice as much as others.