Know the soul of the high-performance employee, then we can build the 10,000 things. by@wbelk

Know the soul of the high-performance employee, then we can build the 10,000 things.

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William Belk

Well-being and retention can only come through understanding.

→ Are you a high-performance employee? Please help me better understand you by contributing to a 30-second anonymous survey. Thank you!

This article is part of an ongoing series on optimizing corporate environments for the High-Performance Employee (HPE). Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Part 5 is here.

One of the issues to plague organizations of all sizes is a natural disconnect between executives and high-performance employees (HPEs). This disconnect affects culture, innovation and everything in-between.

My reference to HPEs does not resemble the productivity-based “high-performing employee” like here, and has little in common with the ambiguous “high-performance organization.” We need to understand high-performance employees based on what they are tasked with and their core principles, not how much they produce, or even worse on standardized personality traits.

Who are the HPEs?

Rather than being tasked with doing the most, high-performance employees (HPEs) are asked to solve the hardest problems in every company. They are the technicians, builders, designers, creatives, culture shapers, narrators and innovators. Together they erect product and industry across the globe. They are the focus of international recruiting, yet they remain largely misunderstood and poorly cared for. Certainly they are paid very well, but retention and morale trends are concerning.

HPEs are the direct conduit between executive/management direction and the actual paying customer. For example, in a software or tech company they would be:

  • Software Engineers
  • Data Scientists
  • Visual Designers
  • Structural & 3-D Prototype Designers
  • Narrative Developers

Just let me be the best.

HPEs are driven by trade and craft. They want to be surrounded by the peers, process and structure to do their very best work. They have a life-long relationship with raw technical skills that directly translate into digital/physical products.

It’s all very simple: the disposition and laser-focus required to become an HPE usually come at the expense of time spent debating, negotiating and evangelizing. Furthermore, it’s quite obvious that executives and HPEs tend to optimize against completely different career and trade principles—this cannot be overstated.

There are outliers, but very few. DHH is not Steve Ballmer. Elon Musk is not Elizabeth Holmes. Tinker Hatfield is not Carly Fiorina. It is easy to see DHH, Musk and Hatfield operating several levels closer to the work—uniquely able to bend the conceptual into the tangible because they think with the high-performance brain. They are builders to the core. They speak in relation to creative/technical truths and non-truths, as opposed to rhetoric. They gravitate toward binary understandings of the experiential and conceptual world. That’s the brain of the HPE—a place uniquely accountable to perfection of practice above all else, a place where the boundaries of truth in craft are stretched and pulled, mirrored and skewed. In this space, there is no need for board meetings, platitudes, or social nuance—only the realm of possibilities that surround the purity of creativity, technique, truth and innovation.

The spirit of the HPE is so unique that it requires exceptional care and thought. Spurred by the explosion in global micro-innovation, executives around the world are scrambling to understand what makes these beautiful people thrive and perform. Many executives are totally lost, simply because they cannot understand the HPE mind. A weekend off-site and reading a few books like Creative Confidence, Rework, Flow, or The Lean Startup are not enough to crack the code of the HPE. Executives are so often unable to detach from their own fundamental assumptions about life and career when attempting to care for the best of the best: the HPE.

Treat the Symptoms

As the business world becomes faster and faster, retention and morale are becoming the major issues with HPEs. The raw cost of losing employees is staggering, and that cost is magnified with HPEs—as key losses can cause acute impacts on innovation, and even spiral into corporate culture disasters. Always predictable, executives are approaching the issue much like western medicine approaches individual health—treat the symptoms of disease, not the cause:

  • Employees are leaving early → let’s offer free dinner
  • Employees are arriving late → let’s offer free breakfast
  • Employees are tired → let’s install an espresso bar
  • Morale is low → let’s install video game consoles
  • Employees are unhealthy → let’s give away free gym memberships

Other superficial substitutes we see in all industries:

  • Free beer
  • Ping pong
  • Happiness Officers
  • Unlimited vacation

One inspiring clubhouse provision after another just doesn’t seem to move the needle. The problem is that HPEs are not average people. They are not primarily motivated by perks. Furthermore, the talent market is so frothy that by unknowingly focusing on superficial perks and salaries, executives are quickly losing HPEs to organizations that provide truly fulfilling technical and creative environments. We need HR departments to understand the spirit of the high-performance employee, and worry much less about the next company happy hour, yoga class or kickball team.


What do HPEs really need?

As low HPE retention remains a constant threat in technical industries, companies must cultivate and understand the mastery and purity of trade in order to manage retention and cultivate morale. The following can serve as a solid foundation:

  • Technical Competency of Direct Managers
  • Mentorship
  • Visual/Written Communication vs Spoken Word
  • Calm Space
  • Process, Time Constraints & Predictable Delivery Cycles
  • The Best Self-Selected Equipment
  • Community Involvement & Evangelism

Technical Competency of Direct Managers

Technical ability of direct managers may be the most important factor for morale and retention with high-performance employees. It’s so obvious. HPEs want to work with other experts, period. As for corporate productivity concerns, it’s also obvious that two experts working together—even if their areas of specialization are different—is exponentially more effective than the expert jostling with the novice.

Just like the innovative record producer working with the musician, if management and executives can stay extremely close to the reality and spirit of their HPEs, the sky is the limit. Continuing these close relationships over long periods of time is the key to sustainable innovation. We have seen this with companies like Dow Chemical, Nike, Samuel Adams Brewing, Sun Microsystems, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, where executives remained the creative/technical visionaries for long spans.

As companies become larger, the chasm between management competency and the HPE can become enormous. It’s easy to understand why as politics and showmanship seem inevitable as companies grow. Expressed here as “the Dead Sea Effect”:

[HPEs] are the ones least likely to put up with the frequent stupidities and workplace problems that plague large organizations; they are also the ones most likely to have other opportunities that they can readily move to. What tends to remain behind is the ‘residue’ — the least talented and effective [employees].

By extension we could also apply the above quote to management. Highly skilled managers will generally not accept working with incompetent and unskilled employees for whom they are responsible. So we could argue that a highly skilled relationship from the top down will cultivate, and naturally inject HPEs into the system. By contrast, the effect of unskilled management will ‘evaporate’ HPEs through attrition.

One of the biggest issues here is when executives and managers lack a clear matrix through which to understand technical ability. Management hiring, apart from promotion inside of teams, can be based on a future manager’s ability to make executives feel safe and secure, as opposed to the manager’s ability to lead the quality and technical complexity of work.

For many technical/creative founders, cultivating these relationships is natural and effortless. However, absent an effective internal process for technical evaluation, the best way to improve quality is to call on inside and outside experts to help shape the type of organization we want—help us understand the who, the how, and the why. In this case, no cost is too great to properly shape an organization full of HPEs. Furthermore, for an organization that has gone off-track, it may take many times more resources than expected to fix the problems.


HPEs need two types of mentorship: peer and elder.

Peer mentorship is most effective for employees under management and comes in the form of things like on-boarding, knowledge transfer, process coaching, and cultural quality compliance. At companies with highly skilled employees and strong cultures, HPE peers are the key to reproducing the accepted norms around craft and mastery.

Elder mentorship should be encouraged to support HPEs on any management or executive track. As previously discussed, HPEs and executives tend to optimize against very different skills and career principles. In addition to a natural career maturation, it is also possible for HPEs to be shoe-horned into the management or executive track based on situational necessity. Companies would be smart to employ tactical mentors to cultivate strong creative/technical leadership. It should be noted that this tactical mentorship must start from a position of previous technical or creative mastery in the same discipline as the mentee.

Visual/Written Communication vs Spoken Word

Organizations should be able to accommodate visual/written communication as a viable alternative to spoken word negotiation. Ability to speak to a group does not always translate to finding the best solutions to complex problems. Turning the weekly meeting into Debate Team Finals will fail miserably with HPEs.

Meetings and social settings can be extremely intimidating for some HPEs. It’s too easy for management and executives who are pedigreed communicators to lose empathy for those who approach communication in a different way. Furthermore, great speakers can easily bully others in group settings. It takes thoughtful folks to avoid this. Most isolated groups of HPEs create nice environments for listening and contributing because they speak the same language to each other, rooted in the same core principles.

Structured written and visual communication can be a democratizing force in some organizations. However, this only happens if executives can embrace alternative process and use their creativity to raise the voices of their best people. Environments and processes structured to benefit the needs of executives will not always benefit the HPE—in fact they rarely do.

Calm Space

I say “calm” instead of “quiet” for a reason. No one likes to feel oppressed by quiet, we are social beings indeed. However, HPEs absolutely need calm, respectful, collaborative environments.

HPEs need a space where they can both retreat and engage without constantly being influenced by others. Clear rules must exist for peer engagement at all times. Interruptions for high-focus employees are incredibly costly by any measure. We need to get away from environments where it’s ok to indiscriminately impose our agenda on folks who are concentrating on a problem. Many of our open floor plans encourage these distractions while trying to promote more social interactions.

When it comes to designing new spaces for HPEs, simply ask the real experts what might make their perfect environment. Your architect or interior decorator will not suffice. Space considerations* are just as important for morale and retention as any—because physical space frames the entire work tenure of each employee. (*Well articulated here and here.)

Process, Time Constraints & Predictable Delivery Cycles

Great people need great process. As management we either possess the skills to directly implement great process, or at least we should aggressively encourage it.

All HPEs of different disciplines have different process needs. Team sizes will greatly dictate structure and process methodology. Executives need to be clear about time, certain and defensible about business rules, and flexible with scope. The best way to work with HPEs is by way of a predictable cadence, where we check in every few days for progress, or standing meetings once a week at specific times. Stream of consciousness access from executives to HPEs is a cancer that must be prevented at all costs.

The Best Self-Selected Equipment

This is another obvious requirement. Get the best equipment available that meets the needs of the greater team and each individual HPE. How many times do we see companies penny-pinching on equipment, or buying used laptops that are outdated and forcing employees to comply? This is absurd. It would be like forcing a team of pro hockey players to use left-handed sticks with the same blade curvature, regardless of position, technique, hand, etc.

Community Involvement & Evangelism

Community is so important to HPEs. Look at the open source software world as the archetype. Sharing and community have changed software and mobility forever. All HPEs know that their inspiration to solve some of the hardest problems is directly tied to a global community of experts. HPEs want to give back and collaborate. Our organizations need to cultivate this. We need to look at example companies like Apple with their keynotes, Nike with their product releases, Google, Facebook, Etsy, Github, CoreOS and NPM with their open-source contributions. Encouraging our HPEs to contribute to their respective communities in ways they find rewarding is paramount.

In closing, it’s imperative that our companies stop using the pay scale and superficial perks as a means of optimizing people. Executives need to tap into deeper levels of understanding and adjust their organizational structure and personnel accordingly.

When was the last time an executive took an entire week to sit in on every single meeting of the engineering or creative teams, only to listen, without saying a single word? This would be a really nice start. The chasm between executive expectations and the hardcore realities of building can be narrowed greatly by better understanding the foundational principles of people.

We have it really good in our technical industries, but we need to stop treating HPEs like livestock that just need high salaries and high-grade feed. Without connecting to and understanding the soul of the HPE, we will continue to see low retention and poor morale—resulting in high churn, ballooning HR budgets, missed deadlines, and stagnant innovation.

→ Are you a high-performance employee? Please help me better understand you by contributing to a 30-second anonymous survey. Thank you!

This article is part of an ongoing series on optimizing corporate environments for the High-Performance Employee (HPE). Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Part 5 is here.




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