Focus on the middle

There are a couple of tropes on LinkedIn that I find irritating me with increasing frequency at the moment.

The first is the “made good” trope, where someone who had nothing now has a job doing something. There’s a variant where they have a job and a flash car. I’m sorry, I don’t care. The “made good” trope is the reinforcement of the belief in meritocracy in which our post-truth society seems to put such stock. The term “meritocracy” was coined in satire…

But the other device that I see frequently is the one that focuses on “why does your top talent leave?” and how you might prevent such an eventuality. 

In many ways this is linked to the meritocracy myth. That productive capability is driven by the top people in your organisation, and everyone else just feeds their genius. It’s no wonder that in this culture we see such a prevalence of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellian behaviour in the leadership of businesses.

But this top talent meme is dangerous because great performance comes from the team, not the individuals. The temptation then is to try to stock up on lots of top performers, but that can be a recipe for internecine disaster. Just look at the relative performances of Chelsea and Leicester in the Premier League. An edge case, yes. But then drawing sports metaphors into business is a fools errand.

So as an antidote to the top performer articles, here’s a call to action. As a leader, how can you get barriers out of the way of your “middle”. How can you get things out of the way of the majority of performers in the middle of your performance bell-curve? Here are some suggestions…

  • Focus on the low performers bringing everyone else down. How can you re-motivate, redeploy or replace the people with whom you avoid dealing?
  • Break down strata. The Adoration of the HiPer reinforces the strata in your organisation; horizontal silos are just as dangerous as vertical ones.
  • Assume that people will leave. Not in a don’t care way, but in a how do we make jobs inherently rewarding way? If the only lever you have to prevent leavers is “compensation” you’ve forgotten that work needs to be purposeful and gives and positively reinforces self identity.
  • Celebrate teams, not just individuals. An organisation should be greater than the sum of its parts. Many only reward individual performance. Go figure why collaboration can be a problem.

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