Supervising a High-Potential Employee and a Lesson From Happy Gilmore
Leslie was a rock star on the rise . . . until she got fired.
We’ve all seen someone with Superman or Superwoman potential, one with extraordinary talents. With eyes closed and one hand tied behind the back, this person can still, somehow, miraculously pull out great results.
That’s what Leslie did in her promising career, going from strength to strength . . . until so many relationships internally were so damaged that her boss had to see her out the door.
How do you supervise a high-potential employee? How do you help him or her avoid career “derailers?” And what does the Adam Sandler movie “Happy Gilmore” have to do with anything? (Keep reading to find out.)
Let’s start with the assumption that the employee has the right stuff; there is no real question about technical capability. However his or her brain is wired, he or she is primed to perform. Technical proficiency is much more easily addressed than “soft skills.”
To help the employee with this technical skill, a few things help. Let’s discuss those first before getting into the tough stuff.
First, connect him or her with other, more experienced and high-performance people doing similar work. Whether you call them peers, mentors or comrades in arms, it can help for a high-potential employee to see a bit beyond his or her own immediate horizons. Sometimes, the employee may start to see his or her own brilliant way is actually not the only way.
Second, help the employee get very specific on which specific aspects of the work tap their talents. Most knowledge work is a constellation of dozens of discrete, different tasks. The job may include research, problem-solving, critical thinking, customer service, scenario planning and teamwork. These, and even particular aspects of these, may be either manna from heaven or dreaded tasks. Things get more differentiated. Getting specific helps to isolate strengths, which is important for career planning.
Having employees experience many different kinds of work (rotations) helps them further discern the range and type of their talents.
Third, help the employee set real developmental goals. These will stretch their talent, and expose the employee to ever more information about the intersection of the talent and the work.
Now, for the hard part, and why Leslie got fired, and what Adam Sandler learned.
The potential trouble with high potential starts with the employee realization that he or she has got the goods. With a growing sense that he or she can run circles around others, a variety of counter-productive thoughts and behaviors can start to occur. The person may show up as aloof, a diva, dilettante, savage critic, condescending or arrogant.
What’s underneath this is usually a two-word mantra that organizations need to pay attention to: “Talent walks.” Because it can when it doesn’t like what is happening. The calculation the employee makes “My (great) results justify my behavior.”
The behaviors mentioned above are, of course, derailers, likely to invite resistance, anger and isolation. As it is very hard to get much done all by one’s self, most reasonable people can see the need to engage others in a way that creates commitment and collaboration, rather than hostility and distance.
In Leslie’s case, she was brilliant with external stakeholders. Able to win agreement nine times out of ten, she hung the moon. But inside the organization, she regularly shredded anyone who did not do exactly what she wanted (demanded, actually), as soon as possible. This included peers. Disbelief, threats and anything but reciprocity (which is a fundamental law of life) were her MO.
Management ultimately did the calculation: the damage internally had now outweighed the benefits externally, and she got canned. That’s how it works. The high-maintenance bills get too high. So, what to do?
Here’s how to help high-potential employees harvest the fruits of their talents without stinking up the place.
First, above all, help them to see that technical competence alone rarely wins the day, particularly in the long run. Make the case that they are actually going to need others along the way, and that the higher up they go, the more this will be true. Of course, this is the business case for emotional intelligence, so slip a copy of the book Emotional Intelligence on the desk.
Second, introduce them to two tools commonly used in development: the Johari Window and the Cycle of Learning.
The Johari Window
Public Area Pane
What I know about myself
Blind Spot Pane
What I do not know about myself
Facade, Mask Pane
What I know about myself
What I do not know aobut myself
The most valuable part of the Johari Window is usually the blind spot, which, as humans, we all have, little or large.
The moment of realization when any person starts to see how others see him or her is no small matter. It often represents a sudden and potentially massive upward shift in consciousness, or awareness.
A 360-degree assessment is the most common way this occurs, but regular, honest and constructive feedback also works. It may take several rounds, but at some point, the message usually sticks. As expressed in a Harvard Business Review article, one person said he suddenly realized he had interpersonal B.O. Of course, this new-found knowledge may or may not be used (and you should encourage application), but little personal change is possible without it
The second tool is the Cycle of Learning, a part of systems thinking.
The Cycle of Learning
You’re bad at it, but you don’t know.
You’re good at it, but it takes effort and energy.
You’re bad at it, and you know.
You’re good at it, and it does not take effort or enery.
The key to this tool is that it is applied to skillsets outside the ones already amply demonstrated as high-potential (e.g., communication skills, conflict management, self-awareness, self-regulation and the other skills needed to accompany the technical skills). Team work is usually the keystone of performance in this case.
For some reason, the word “competence” gets attention with high-performers. So go ahead, use it. High-potential employees like the concept of mastery. In this case, it means making skills in communication, conflict management and the other behaviors mentioned above into automatic habits.
Third, use the employee’s most intractable problems as potential gateways for great self- and other-awareness. These problems are usually social (meaning they involve other people), and the dawning awareness that technical brilliance won’t win the day invites a new discussion on how to gain cooperation, and how to connect.
Finally, what about Adam Sandler?
There is a pivotal scene in the movie Happy Gilmore where Sandler, a hockey player who has stumbled into golf, comes off the course and talks with his coach. Sandler can hit the ball a mile; he’s high-potential.
Coach: Happy, shut your trap. You were great out there today.
Happy: Thank you.
Coach: But not that great. A lot of that was luck.
Happy: Some might call it luck. I like to call it … well, luck, I guess. So what?
Coach: Don’t join the Pro Tour yet. We got work to do before you go against professionals.
Happy: Forget it. I’II pick up the rest as I go.
Coach: Don’t be a fool! People would kill to hit the long ball like you. You got an advantage over any other golfer. By developing the rest of your game…you’d be unstoppable.
The bottom line for high-potential employees is that it’s a beautiful thing when they can combine great technical performance with great skills with people — when “the rest of the game” is developed.
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