by Dan Knise
Over my career as a leader, I’ve spent a great deal of time figuring out how to make the various organizations I’ve been a part of more successful. Much of this time was spent on the people side—identifying future leaders, dealing with problem performers, and ensuring our organizational systems supported the behaviors and outcomes important to our success.
Heeding the advice of the management gurus, much of this energy went into identifying and supporting top performers (so-called “A Players”); while counseling and then weeding out “C Players” who didn’t improve.
Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the job of keeping A Players happy and motivated wasn’t that difficult—heck, these high performers were largely self-motivated and generally self-aware. All a leader had to do was keep them challenged, provide honest feedback and support, and reward them and the results kept rolling in.
The C Players, on the other hand, seemed always to take way too much time. In retrospect, we probably worked too hard to see if we could “find the right fit” or “re-pot” them. The likely right course to begin with (we eventually ended up there in most cases) was to give these employees the opportunity to contribute elsewhere.
While the work of dealing with the A and C Players has clear value, I’ve come to believe that the conventional wisdom ignores what may well be the greatest opportunity to enhance success in your organization. Simply put, leveraging that 60-70 percent of your workforce that might best be characterized as “B Players.”
Let’s face it, despite all the tough talk about surrounding yourself with only A Players, at the end of the day all of us can identify team members who are best characterized as B or B+ Players. These professionals are keepers, but aren’t setting the world on fire. They do a good job, are committed to the organization and it’s values, but just aren’t good enough to be your top salesperson or your candidate to replace you as CEO or even the absolutely best technical expert on your team.
Imagine the power of getting just 10 or 20% more out of these folks. A 10% increase in B Player performance can mean a 6-7% increase in your organization’s productivity. Aim a bit higher and get a 20% performance increase and you’re talking about improving organizational performance by a whopping 12-14%!
How do you tap this mother lode of opportunity? I’ve found four simple steps to be successful:
- Spend time with your B Players, get to know them and let them know they are important. Often these employees feel left out as managers spend all their time on the A and C Players. Ask their opinion, get their input. This step alone can be highly motivating and unlock higher levels of performance.
- Look for opportunities to nurture incremental performance improvement. Don’t shoot for the stars and be disappointed with this group. Instead, work toward incremental performance enhancement that is both achievable and sustainable. Small steps pay off and are reinforcing, leading to further improvement.
- Build on strengths. Rather than try to change these important professionals and fix their short-comings; focus on building on their strengths. Remember, you aren’t looking to make them the next CEO, but simply enhance their performance by 10-20%.
- Scale Your Efforts So You Can Sustain Them. Working with this group requires on-going attention, so be careful not to create a “flash in the pan” activity level and then disappear. Scale your efforts to a sustainable level so you can maintain the contact and capture the resulting energy.
Time and again, I’ve seen this strategy pay huge dividends as the A Players continue to excel, but are now supported by a more highly-motivated and higher performing group of B Players. And best of all, you don’t have to look far to mine this gold. DK
Dan Knise is President and CEO of Ames & Gough, a specialty broker focused on serving professionals including architects, engineers, construction managers, attorneys and consultants. He leads the firm’s client service practice, has a focus on law firms and certain other initiatives, and works with many of Ames & Gough’s larger professional service firm clients.
Prior to joining Ames & Gough, Dan formed Restaurant Insurance Corp., a reinsurance company and underwriting manager, and also provided consulting services for Palmer & Cay, which is now Wells Fargo Insurance Services.
Dan headed the region-wide effort to win the right to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games to the Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland region. We deserved to win that right, but strong local behind the scene politics played into the decision and another region of the country won the right, and was not selected by the International Olympic Committee.
I first worked with Dan during his amazing career with Johnson & Higgins, where he clearly stood out for his leadership of many of our very important initiatives, for example, our target industry efforts, which were based on learning the unique risk management needs of the fields so we could build our knowledge and capabilities, our company wide effort with middle market clients and, while I held Dan in very high esteem, it was his leadership of our quality initiative that lead me to realize what amazing leadership he provided.
Thousands of U.S. companies were working towards “quality”, from top to bottom, with ideas for continuous improvement coming from the bottom up, and probably 95% of companies within the United States were making limited progress. Yet, at J&H, thanks to Dan, we had a sea change. Our quality movement was truly transformational. Everyone within our company realized that they could delight our clients, and that we were all internal clients, and that we could help one another with honest and timely feedback, and the best ideas were most often from those who were actually doing the work. I could go on, but I could write pages and pages about our quality initiative, the effect it was having, and that it was, in great part, thanks to Dan’s leadership.
A believer in community service, Dan includes serving on the boards of Virginia Hospital Center, Gonzaga College High School, Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, Greater Washington Sports Alliance, and a number of other similar important organizations in this area.
I have known Dan for 25 years and have the greatest admiration for his intelligence, insight, judgment, integrity and his commitment to strong yet caring leadership.