About the Episode
In this episode, which is a follow up to Unleashing the Young Turks In Your Firm, Jason and Jeff discuss the attributes of high potential employees and the best ways to manage and motivate these employees in order to drive both them and the firm forward.
Jeff shares the five attributes that he believes all high potential talent have:
1. They’re business-minded people.
2. They’re insatiably curious.
3. They’re tenacious problem solvers.
4. They’re risk takers.
5. They’re analytically creative.
Next, Jason and Jeff dive into how to best manage high potential employees.
“In terms of how to manage them, the most important thing in my mind with a HighPo, to unleash their potential, is to raise the expectations that you have for them, and create if you will, self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Three ways to raise expectations of your high potential employees:
1. Remind them that they’re a business person and to think like a business person.
2. Tell them that they should be having executive recruiters calling them at work.
“If recruiters aren’t calling you, that means you do not have the skills in demand in the marketplace, or your work is not visible. Either way, we have a problem.”
3. Demand that they act and perform at a level above their current title.
“If I have a marketing coordinator, I expect them to start thinking and acting like a marketing manager. If I have a manager, I expect that person to act and think like a director. If I have a director, start thinking like a VP or a CMO. When you tell people to do that, it’s so fun to watch how they begin to grow, how their thinking changes, and how their confidence to interact with others really is amplified. It becomes a flywheel if you will.”
Jason Mlicki: Hi, Jeff, so last time we talked, we spent a lot of time talking about how to identify Young Turks. How to identify high potential talent within your firm. The commitment we made to each other was, the next time we get together, was let’s talk about how you manage them. It’s one thing to know who they are, it’s another thing to figure out how you’re going to manage them, and reward them, and make sure that their success drives the firm forward, and drives their careers forward. I propose we do that. Are you game?
Jeff McKay: I’m game.
Jason Mlicki: All right, let’s jump in. What are the things we need to think about when it comes to managing these individuals that sort of have this different way of looking at things, and maybe this energy, and bring all kinds of upside potential to the firm today and tomorrow? What are some of the things we need to be thinking about in terms of managing?
Jeff McKay: I’m going to take a step back.
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: 30 seconds and make sure that we’re kind of on the same page and summarize what I think the attributes of a Young Turk HighPo is.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I don’t want to do that. I want to move forward. I’m teasing, go.
Jeff McKay: Because I think this is important to how you actually manage them.
Jason Mlicki: No, I totally agree. I totally agree.
Jeff McKay: The number one, they’re business-minded people. They think like business people. They don’t think marketers, or accountants, or architects. They think like business-minded people.
Jason Mlicki: I will begrudgingly admit that attribute. I’m not entirely sure that’s always … geez, in the world of technology, some of the greatest visionaries, and the people that had the greatest impact on some of the most successful companies we know today didn’t necessarily come at with a business framework. They just sort of had this product vision and idea, right? I don’t know. I don’t know if I totally agree that, but I’ll take it at its face value.
Jeff McKay: Business-minded in that our work here is to satisfy a client need, and that we keep the client focused. We do that from a business perspective. That we don’t get caught up in own work for own work’s sake. That there is a reason we’re doing the work. That’s what I mean by business minded.
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: They’re insatiably curious. They want to learn, they want to grow. Like my IT woman, for example, always wanting to grow as people. They are tenacious problem solvers. They don’t take no for an answer. You give them a task, they keep digging, and digging, and digging, and digging, until they get to an answer. They are risk takers. As I said before, they’re willing to raise their hand. They’re willing to break some eggs. You know, stick their head up out of a hole and ask the tough question.
Jason Mlicki: Let me, before you move on to that, I want to add on. I don’t agree that they have to raise their hand. I would say they’re risk takers because again, I’ll go back to that same comment, they can be introverted. Some of your most talented people may not be the ones that raise their hand, but to your point, when asked, or when invited to raise their hand, they may blow you away, and they’ll seize that moment, which would be risky, right? I don’t want to again, I’m a bit of an introvert, as you know.
That’s why I keep raising this flag because there are people that are not going to just raise their hand. They’re going to wait to be invited and when they’re invited, they’re going to just completely blow up every preconception that you had. We don’t want to dismiss those folks because they are critical to the future success of most firms. But, I agree with the concept, so keep going, and then fifth was analytical.
Jeff McKay: Yes. That’s a narrow definition of risk, just speaking up. My risk-taking is much broader than that.
Jason Mlicki: I was responding to the way you described it. I mean, you literally said, “A risk taker is they raise their hand.” I’m saying, you know, they don’t have to raise their hand, right? That’s all I’m saying. I totally agree with your broad definition of risk. I was just disagreeing with the clarity you wrapped around it. That’s all.
Jeff McKay: Okay. They’re analytically creative. This is something you can relate to. It’s creativity, but it’s backed with data, right? They think holistically. They’re brash. You know, they’re willing to fight for an idea and challenge the status quo. You know, that’s the definition of a Young Turk. They are collaborative. Again, this gets back to what I said earlier, somebody who’s just climbing for their own sake, does not fit my definition of a HighPo. Finally, they’re performance driven. You know, they want to hit a result. They pursue excellence. They want mastery. They’re just always trying to improve their lap speeds, or distances, or whatever metaphor you want to use. That’s the combination of attributes that I see in young Turks and HighPos.
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: In terms of how to manage them, the most important thing in my mind with a HighPo, to unleash their potential, is to raise the expectations that you have for them, and create if you will, self-fulfilling prophecy. I think this is how you can take somebody who’s maybe medium potential and move them into a high potential. I’ve seen this in that first example of coming in and having executive assistants who think all they can do is event management or something along those lines, and saying, “No, no, no. I believe there’s much more to you than that.”
You have to change the expectations and create an environment that allows a self-fulfilling prophecy to occur. The expectations that I set for all of my teams, and I believe the HighPos raise their hand metaphorically here by responding to these expectations. Low potential people get scared by this and leave. The first one is, you’re a business person. You think like a business person, if you’re not thinking like a business person, start thinking like a business person, not some kind of communicator, or designer. Two, I tell my teams that they should be having executive recruiters calling them at work. I tell them this and I always get like, what, look from them.
If recruiters aren’t calling you, that means you do not have the skills in demand in the marketplace, or your work is not visible. Either way, we have a problem and if other firms don’t want you, why would I want you on my team? This sets a very strong expectation that feeds into that self-learning and growing that people want. But, it gives them something, a tangible return in addition to upping their game. I think that one is really critical. Most firms would shy away from that, but I think it’s so incredibly important. I also tell them, when they get those calls, that they have to come and talk to me before they make a decision and that I will help them talk through that decision. If there is a better place for them to realize their potential than where they currently are, I help them get there. The case with the woman from IT is just one of those examples.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I want to just dive into that for one second, because that was the one thing I did want to come back to is, I do think that if you’re going to manage the high potentials, I think you have to recognize that turnover is likely on your team, and it’s probably a good thing. That there’s going to be times when the potential of the person outstrips the ability of the organization to give them what they need. That story I told the writer, that’s really what happened with him.
We just weren’t able to give him the level of growth he needed and so, when he moved on, I was like, I’m happy for you. I’m proud of you. I’m excited to see what you do next because you’ve done what you can do here. Now, go do bigger better things elsewhere. I would always argue, that’s kind of a rare … it’s a bit of a rare mindset for leaders of firms, my sense is. I don’t know for sure. My sense is that there’s fewer folks that think like that then there probably should be.
Jeff McKay: I agree. The people who think that are managing high-performance teams and people are fighting to get on those teams, which makes that identifying and recruiting HighPos even easier for a leader.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: I saw both approaches at Anderson, but I saw leaders help HighPos get out of Anderson and go elsewhere to the determent of their team in the short-term, but to their benefit in the long-term. Confident, caring leaders do that type of stuff. It’s hard because you build relationships with these people and you like having them on your team. You don’t want them to go.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, I mean, let’s not kid ourselves. Turnover’s hard to manage, right? When you build a team that you’re excited about and you think this is a great team, and then you lose someone on that team, then you just recognize that the team just degraded a little bit in the short-term. You’re going to have to rebuild it. Usually, you can build it even stronger if you’re doing this well. At least that’s the attitude I’ve tried to take to it, whether or not we can always deliver on that, I don’t know, but I do know that if I can take that attitude, that if we lose a key person because they find a better opportunity, well then we’ll look at that opportunity to replace them with someone even stronger and build the team up.
Jeff McKay: That’s a healthy way of looking at it.
Jeff McKay: The next thing that I do, and this makes people a little uncomfortable as well, is that I demand that they act and perform at a level above their current title. If I have a marketing coordinator, I expect them to start thinking and acting like a marketing manager. If I have a manager, I expect that person to act and think like a director. If I have a director, start thinking like a VP or a CMO. When you tell people to do that, it’s so fun to watch how they begin to grow, how their thinking changes, and how their confidence to interact with others really is amplified. It becomes a flywheel if you will.
But, by saying, “I expect you to act at this level.” They need to understand what the next level clearly is and what it takes to get there. As a leader, I am always demonstrating to them what it looks like to be a CMO, or whatever level I’m at. You have to set the expectation of performing at that level.
Jason Mlicki: It’s really an interesting idea and I like it a lot. What I like so much about it is that old notion that, no, you promote people to the point of incompetence, right? That’s a great way to combat that is to ask people to behave a level up so that you have a sense of whether or not they can handle whatever the next level is before they go to that level. You know, and you’ve given them permission to behave that way, which is also probably pretty critical.
Jeff McKay: That’s a great point, Jason. That’s what it takes is the permission to act at that level, particularly in professional services firms that are very hierarchal. Not all of them are that way, but most of them are, that you set an expectation that it’s okay to challenge me in a meeting or to act differently than maybe others would expect you to act. Again, it goes back to what we said earlier. When you act a little bit different than expectations, you begin to stand out. That’s risky, but it also draws attention to you for other opportunities, so you have to be smart about how you do it. It has follow-on effects as well, in order to do that.
I think this is another incredibly important attribute, is you have to move out of your comfort zone. You have to step out of it on your own, or you better be expected to be pushed out of it. I have pushed people out of their comfort zones many times. A prerequisite for pushing them out of their comfort zone is being clear on what their comfort zones is or are. You have to know as a leader, where these people put up walls around themselves and stayed safe. Where’s their good place and a safe place to push them out of that comfort zone. When they do that, it becomes a teachable moment and it can have huge effects on their performance.
Jason Mlicki: I had a note in here, in terms of managing, was to create opportunities for incremental value. That would be, I’m mirroring that to what you just said. That’s one of the things that came to mind for me is you have to sort of create opportunities for them to push outside those comfort zones if you’re going to manage them well. They’re wanting it and they’re asking for it, so it’s your job to create it. The only other thing that came to mind for me was rewards. I don’t know exactly what we want to talk about there, necessarily. Conceptually, I made a note to myself, it said, I think a critical piece of a culture, for a firm that wants to have high-performance teams, and high potential talent would be to try to reward behaviors and outcomes over longevity, right?
Reward a behavior you want to get, you want to see, and the outcomes you’re looking for over top of so and so’s here for their 20th, 30th year, or whatever. Not that that’s a bad thing. Not that rewarding that’s a bad thing, but saying I would want to prioritize the former over the later, whenever I could.
Jeff McKay: Yes. Most HighPos I think are intrinsically motivated.
Jason Mlicki: Yes.
Jeff McKay: The promotions and everything are important, but there’s something intrinsic that satisfies them and drives them. Often times, in marketing in particular, or some of the functional areas, the HighPos cannot stay in a firm forever because their rate of rise is faster than the organization can often absorb, unless the firm is growing it at an exponential rate, or opportunities are somehow serendipitously presenting themselves.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: You know, changes in leadership roles, and shuffling like that.
Jason Mlicki: I do want to comment on the rewards thing. I agree with you that everything we’ve described about this high potential employee’s intrinsic motivation, so I would not incline to say that rewards are motivators, but I will say that if there’s reward misalignment, HighPos are going to exit fast. If they recognize that the way that their intrinsically wired to do the things that we’ve talked about are not reflected in the rewards model, meaning that they’re not seeing recognition for that, then they’re going to exit before they even emerge. That’s all I meant by that because I agree with you.
They reward is sort of the after the fact. They did exactly what you’re hoping is of the intrinsic motivation and then once it’s there, they do expect to say, well, wait a minute, you should reward the outcome I created here. If that’s not there, then they’re going to see that as a tell-tale sign that they’re in the wrong place.
Jeff McKay: That’s a great point. The other thing that I do related to that, Jason, is because sometimes marketing in particular, but organization’s as a whole, you can have your hands tied in terms of how much you can really do from a financial rewards perspective.
Jason Mlicki: Yep.
Jeff McKay: But, I tell my teams that my expectation for you is that you’re prepared to be fired at any moment. And like the recruiters should be calling you, I get really odd stares in that respect. I tell them that business life is business life, and the deal is I am going to trade you money, and 401K, and healthcare, and we are going to learn a lot. We’re going to travel to some phenomenal places, and you’re going to manage great projects and work with smart people. You need to absorb and enjoy as much of that as you possibly can, because if things turn south, or the firm’s acquired, or there’s some other issue, you could be out of the firm that quickly.
Let’s work together and do what we can to grow one another now. When I say that, and it seldom happened. It so seldom does happen, but high performers appreciate that honesty of saying, “Oh, okay. I get it. That’s a deal, that’s a trade-off. You pay me this. I give you that.” They respond to that. Again, it fuels their learning, and their risk-taking, so that they’re always performing at the top of their game.
Jason Mlicki: It’s funny because the way you approach the statement, it felt combative to me. So, you need to prepare to like go. Like this is a high drive culture. You know, kind of like the old, wasn’t it Jack Welch who said, “You let go of the bottom 10% of your performers every single year regardless of how good they are.”
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: I always thought that that’s kind of a cutthroat culture that I would not want to be a part of, but I do love the sentiment of it, which is just implying hey … it just reinforces the things that you said are HighPos, right? You know, insatiable curiosity, tenacious, problem solving, risk-taking, all those things. If you’re doing those things, if that were to happen, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to be a great resource for the next place you go, wherever that is. I love it. I love the message. I personally, would probably couch it a different way, but that’s just me, right?
Jeff McKay: That’s what makes us different. Like I always say, I always say, “My wife is working on my communication style.”
Jason Mlicki: Well, it’s funny. This is a sidebar. As you know, I live in Columbus and we have a fairly high profile football team here at Ohio State and a pretty high profile coach. I’m not a huge follower of sports in general. I remember when he came aboard, he had this quote and I always was struck by the quote. When I heard it, I recognize it in the way his teams have always behaved. This is Urban Meyer and his quote was, he’s like, I don’t know, and I don’t remember exactly how he exactly said it, but he’s like, “The one thing I know about this game is if you always play it like your hair is on fire, you will be successful.”
It was just this sort of message to the world, that I expect you to be functioning at an incredible level of performance and tenacity all the time. It just sort of relates to some of the things I hear you saying. It’s like, I expect this to be a high-performance team. I’m going to set that expectation in a way that is going to sound a little crazy. I’ve always loved that quote just in the sense of it just sort of set the tone for the culture that he expected out of his teams. Of course, they’ve done very well everywhere they’ve gone. I mean, as a coaching team.
That’s what I love about the things you’re saying, is that it’s just sort of establishing the framework of what a high-performance team looks like and hence this is the deal. I’m going to say we wrap. I feel like we really kind of kicked the tires on this topic on so dimensions from hiring great talent to identifying it when you may not necessarily know it’s there, and then to how to manage it going forward. I love this discussion. Thanks for doing it with me.
Jeff McKay: My pleasure. Now, go find a HighPo.