Managing Star Employees in Small Businesses
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Coach Your First String First

Managing a business, especially a small business, is like coaching a sports team. Like any team, you have your stars, and inevitably, you have your benchwarmers. While both groups have a place in your organization, they should not be managed in the same way.

Managing Star Employees in Small Businesses

We all know our stars. They bend over backwards to get their work done and are there for the business even when they have to deal with a flat tire, sick babysitter or bad weather. They don’t need us to stand over them or to watch their every move. Typically, they do more than we ask, thinking of things that need to be done before we ask them to be done – and sometimes before even we’ve thought of it!

Then, there are the benchwarmers. They are easier to identify than the stars because we find ourselves devoting most of our time and energy to them. They are the ones who are often late or have recurring “personal issues” that keep them out of the office or keep their work from getting done. When it is done, their work may not be on time, or needs serious rework.

So, who should you spend more time with – the benchwarmers or the stars? If you are like most people, 80% of your time is spent trying to improve the performance of the benchwarmers, while 20% (or less) of your time is spent with the stars. But is that the most effective and efficient use of our time? After all, does Bears Coach Lovie Smith spend the majority of his time with the first string or the second string?

Years ago, one of my mentors in leadership taught me the maxim, “Feed what you like. Starve what you don’t like.” In other words, reward the behaviors that you like and want by paying attention to them and supporting those that exhibit them. Behaviors that we don’t like, or that aren’t helpful to us should not be allowed to absorb our time and attention. By continuing to ignore the stars, we indirectly may be discouraging their performance. Rather, we should be doing everything that we can to ensure the high-performers maintain their performance levels and strive to achieve even more.

The stars are the backbone of our business’ success. Let them know you realize their value and appreciate their effort. Create a rewards or recognition system for your employees to “feed” high performance people who exhibit desirable traits. It can be as simple as certificates of recognition or a lunch with you. Also, by establishing a system to recognize good behavior, you provide a way for everyone to measure their performance.

Now, what about the benchwarmers? Like every team, every business, regardless of size, has some benchwarmers. While not the ideal employees, benchwarmers do serve a purpose. We need them when we have a sudden need for more players, when we have gaps or need to fill in for the stars. Therefore, we do need to cultivate the benchwarmers and ensure we have employees capable of reaching the next level. Often someone who is a benchwarmer this year will turn into next year’s star. Yet, we cannot spend our already limited time focusing on the lower-achieving employees. We need to use our business structures, the rewards system, stars leading teams, and our performance management process to encourage and nurture those. Often times stars will take a benchwarmer under their wing, this provides stars with some leadership and management experience while mentoring the benchwarmers. It also frees your time.

While we can offer some guidance and direction, benchwarmers need to find their way to becoming stars or get out of the way of those who are willing. Give them some time and the guidance necessary to succeed, then evaluate their future in your business. Some will fly, others will fall. This may sound harsh, but if your business is going to grow, you must focus your most limited and precious resource (your time) on harvesting the stars.

The following are some guidelines for how to best manage your stars and benchwarmers – as well as your time.

  • Set firm guidelines for expected attendance and performance levels. Give people plenty of leeway on how to get there, but very little leeway if they cross the line. I recommend one warning and then they are out. However, discipline should not be the only tool in your bag for dealing with benchwarmers.
  • Any method of discipline MUST be coupled with a system of regular performance reviews and frank discussions about what it takes to be a star. Make sure benchwarmers, as well as your stars, know where they stand and what is expected of them.
  • Let them struggle. When benchwarmers are having a hard time with a task, limit your instinct to jump in and make it easy for them. Let them struggle and learn. If they are looking for help, ask them to first work with one of their peers to figure it out before coming to you.
  • Always be recruiting. If you know that you have a steady source of prospects for new employees, you will hesitate less when it’s time to get rid of your poor performers.
  • Dedicate specific times for working with your stars. Spend one-on-one time with them. Support their growth and development by finding challenging, stretch assignments for them.
  • Set specific training and development plans to help stars continue their growth. Be a real partner for them as they look to further their careers. Invest in training programs or coaching and mentoring programs – whatever you and your star agree will help him/her develop.

Of course there is a balance. We need to treat our employees fairly, giving each one an opportunity to succeed. We don’t want to create a culture of prima donnas or “haves” & “have nots”. But we can’t let our desire to be fair keep us from developing our best people and focusing our time and attention on the first string players.

Properly managing your time and energy between your stars and benchwarmers can maximize their performance and your resources. Spend time with those people who can, and will, make the most difference for your firm. While all employees may not be stars, they should at least be contributing to your business in a meaningful way. Empower them to succeed, allow them to fail and cut those who lack the potential or ambition. With the right mix, you’ll soon have your own winning team – just like our Chicago Bears!

Photo credit: e r j k . a m e r j k a

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