Extraordinary Performers: Why You Need Them and How To Keep Them

January 19, 2022

Extraordinary Performers: Why You Need Them and How to Keep Them

In a society that showers attention on those in power, it is valuable to remember that those in the C suite are not the only ones doing the remarkable everyday work that causes organizations to excel. Much of the excellence comes from the host of people who conscientiously get work done and constantly look for ways to do it better, the individual contributors.

A decade ago, two Stanford University Graduate School of Business School professors wrote a book titled:  Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People. The main thesis of the book was that some organizations created cultures in which all employees perform like stars, rather than a mere handful of unusually talented people. Professors O’Reilly III and Pfeffer presented compelling evidence that some organizations were able to extract remarkable performance from their employees, in contrast to others in the same industry who were recruiting from the same pool and paying the same or more in compensation, but who showed far more modest results.

Individual Contributors: Leaders?

Our firm has been known for its focus on leadership development. It may surprise some to know that we also have a program, The Extraordinary Performer, targeted to those in the firm who have no direct reports. Organizations use this program to develop engineers, chemists, accountants, and marketing specialists—people who are really important to the firm’s success but who don’t have the title of manager, director, or Vice President next to their name. Yes, our focus is still on leadership development, so long as you share our expanded view that leadership can and should occur at all levels.

A Vital Key to Successful Organizations

Many people are taken aback when you tell them that some of the most influential people in an organization have no one reporting to them. Individual contributors are extremely valuable. They make huge contributions. They influence countless people around them. They are the source of new product ideas and new marketing strategies. They are vital to every organization’s success. Contribution in an organization often has little correlation to title or position. Here are the ways to exemplify their critical roles:

1. Don’t Shower All the Attention on the More Visible Leaders

We fully subscribe to what O’Reilly and Pfeffer conclude about how these organizations can create a culture that brings out the best in people. We applaud the focus on the front-line workers and not showering all the attention on the more visible leaders.

There are two forces at work, however, and while we think organizational culture is one strong force, there is also something that comes from within certain people that leads them to produce at such high levels. We’re all aware of the common situation of 80 percent of the revenue coming from 20 percent of the sales force. Yet all the salespeople exist in the same culture. Some grow more than others in the culture and produce remarkably higher results.

2. Spread Development More Broadly

This phenomenon confirms our conviction that organizations benefit when they spread development more broadly. We subscribe to the idea of providing development for everyone in the organization. Why? It pays off. Some of these people will evolve into future managers, and if they don’t, the effort still pays off in their higher productivity and commitment to the organization.

Many organizations spend huge sums of money on the development of the so-called “hi-pos” or high potential people whom they believe will grow into their future executives. No one would dispute that this is a group that needs to be carefully nurtured and monitored. We think it is a mistake, however, to ignore other large groups of highly valuable people who are the extraordinary “doers” of the organization.

3. Remember to Focus on Strengths

As with managers in formal leadership roles, extraordinary individual contributors are differentiated by the existence of a few profound strengths, not the absence of weakness. They, too, should implement their development efforts using the same approach of building strengths rather than fixing weaknesses.

4. Reflect on Who Keeps Your Business Running—And Make Them Happy

I was in a meeting a few years ago at which Michael Eisner spoke. He was talking about the key levers of success for the Disney organization. One of his comments noted that it was the animators who were the most crucial group in the organization, more so than many of the V.P.’s. Without them, the organization’s future would be in serious jeopardy. Keeping them committed and productive was one of Eisner’s key roles.

We think it is wise for every organization to pause and reflect on who truly causes the organization to excel. Great organizations should provide appropriate levels of development for the people who may appear quite ordinary to some but who, in reality, are the individuals who allow the organization to truly succeed.

—Jack Zenger
Connect with Zenger Folkman on LinkedInTwitter, and Facebook.

Additional reporting for this article was provided by Joseph FolkmanZenger Folkman President.

(This article first appeared in Forbes)