Managing High Performers

Management advice often includes guidance on managing low performance. There is less written about managing high performance.

This disparity exists for two reasons:

  • High performance is less common than low performance, because high performers usually get promoted into positions with higher expectations. Underperformance is in every role; high performance gets leveled-up into expectation-meeting performance.
  • Most managers mismanage high performers. In fact, most managers don’t really manage them at all. So, there are fewer managers who know how to manage high performers, let alone managers to write about it.

What follows is our main advice for managing high performers.

Manage Them!

Weak managers let high performing reports do whatever they want. Even the best performers need structure and guidance - a coach. Without coaching, high performers can meet all sorts of suboptimal fates, like:

  • Not meeting their potential. Even a passive observer can help someone improve. But good coaches do more - they help high performers reach new levels.
  • Some high performers go unmanaged for so long that they work themselves into a role that has no real responsibility - they just float around and help people. There’s nothing sadder than a capable person with no real responsibility.

So if you’ve got a high performer - manage them! Make sure they drive the big wins. Identify places for improvement.

Most high performers go unmanaged either because their managers are intimidated or just don’t know how.

You shouldn’t be intimidated because you’re not as skilled as your high performer. Even Tiger Woods has a coach, and he is definitely a better golfer than his own coach. Doing and coaching are two separate skills; you can help someone improve without being better than them.

People inevitably hit a ceiling, and you need to be there to coach them through it, no matter how spectacular their skills

Don’t take them for granted

High performers can often make your life much easier and handle all sorts of problems. If you forget about them while you’re dealing with other problems, however, you’ll wake up one day to find their resignation letter. This is one of the ways for you yourself to become a low performer.

The single most important activity to do with your high performer is career planning. Know where they want to go and help them get there. If you saddle them with mess after mess to fix without a path to greater things, even if you pay them well, you’ll lose the truly ambitious high performer who feels uninvested-in and directionless.

Set clear expectations

High performers should be getting paid more than others and should have much higher expectations. Managers often miss this nuance and, for example, are not comfortable giving a high performer anything but the maximum score on a performance review. How can our best person be at expectations? Well, if you pay them way more than everyone you’d expect them to be better than everyone else.

Most organizations and managers are quite good at performance managing people who are doing nothing, or close to nothing. Very few organizations are good at the gradated set of expectations above that, especially differentiated between great and greater.

Many career ladders try to solve this by having titles gradate with spans of control - they’re responsible for more people and stuff, so clearly they’re doing more, right? Not really. Some people are responsible for 40 people that would do amazing without them. Some people are responsible for 10 people who would fall apart without them. Spans of control are not entirely sufficient to judge performance.

You need to articulate differentiated expectations for high performers, not just about what their area of ownership will produce, but what they will actually do. Expect a lot and let your high performers know it.

Do give critical feedback to high performers

Weak managers often avoid giving feedback to high performers, either because they don’t know what to say, or, worse, because they fear that if they give critical feedback the high performer will turn around and start criticizing them.

This is a mistake. If you’re managing a high performer, you must be willing to give them feedback when necessary. If you don’t know how to say it, ask for help. Like in any performance situation, delaying things only makes it worse - you dig the hole deeper, and leave people asking why you didn’t tell them sooner.

Do pay them unreasonably

Some people get uncomfortable paying the best people way more than average. Pay people what they’re worth, even if that’s a lot, even if that’s more than what you make. At many companies the top sales rep at a company often makes more cash than the CRO.

Sometimes people get afraid that this will cause problems if the information gets out. In reality it is actually the opposite - if it’s known that top performers get paid more, it can actually encourage the right behavior

Don’t expect them to be everything

Always remember - play to people’s strengths. This doesn’t mean overlooking major flaws in ability and execution. But sometimes you can be coaxed into thinking they’re so good that they just need to learn this one last thing to be unstoppable. If you push too hard on something that someone will never achieve, you can tank a high performer’s trajectory.

For example, you might have someone who is a phenomenal coder, better than you’ve ever seen, but who is average at project management. You can spend all of your time trying to get them to be better at project management, or you can spend some of your time trying to get them to be better at project management and hire another person who is better at project management to help bridge the gap.

There is nuance here - some deficiencies are not acceptable. As a manager, you have to balance:

  • If you promote someone with a skill gap, are they good enough that others won’t think it’s unfair, or a precedent they can follow even though they’re not as skilled?
  • Is their ability what your organization actually needs? For example, they might be an amazing coder, but at some level that cant make up for deficiencies in coordination and project ownership.
  • Can you effectively supplement their deficiency?

I’ve seen A++ people repeatedly get pushed into projects or growth plans their manager knew they weren’t good at, only to see them fail again and again and eventually leave.

Fix any behavioral issues early

Over time high performers are depended on more and more, which makes behavioral management more and more difficult. If you need to give feedback in the first month of a high performer’s tenure, the worst case is that they quit, before you relied on them. Years in, people start weighing key person risk, and high performers start to weigh feedback against what they know their value is.

If there are any interpersonal or communication issues with a high performer, fix them immediately, do not give them any oxygen. Many people act as bad as their environment allows them to, and many people would never reach problematic levels if they weren’t allowed to get there one step at a time.

Spot common pitfalls

A unique failure condition of high performers is the high performer who is great at executing most of the time, but is unreasonably pessimistic or stubborn in the face of some big goals.

What’s happening is that they don’t know how to do a thing, but instead of saying “I don’t know”, they say “this is unreasonable” or “I don’t think this is likely at all.”

They’re so used to being right, that they confuse not personally knowing with a thing not being knowable. What’s worse, they’re so good that few people can tell them when they’re wrong on this diagnosis.

If you detect this in a high performer, it’s usually best to just coach them directly on this exact scenario. This is one of the few cases where a truly outstanding employee can have a significant deficit that is quickly coached to better outcomes.

Know when they’ve stopped being a high performer

Some new hires are like a gift from the heavens. They raise the bar for your team, build massively critical functionality, quarterback the team through major periods of growth.

And then they stop growing.

Often this is essentially the Peter Principle at work - people get promoted into roles that are above their ability.

More sneakily though, this sometimes happens when a role gets implicitly upleveled over time above their skill level. A VP at a 100 person company is a very different role than a VP at a 1000 person company.

Other times, you’ve just promoted someone into a role they are at expectations in, which is ok.

If you notice a high performer is cooling down but they are still doing the role well, you can simply partner with them on acknowledging their growth path has slowed a bit and figuring out the right ambition and direction for their next step.

If a high performer finds themself in a role they are underperforming in, you have a couple options:

  • Be clear about the situation and give them a path to get back on track.
  • Offer them another role, even a demotion if needed. Note that demotions are almost never a good idea, but with a very select few high performers, they can avoid the tragedy that the Peter Principle creates.


The throughline between all of this feedback is that high performers are really good, which might lull you into avoiding regular management best practices. Managing a high performer is really all about making sure you use management fundamentals with your best people.

P.S. While we liberally use “high performer” in this post, there’s no such thing as a “high performer”, only people who are high performing at a given time. “High performer” is used as a shorthand for “people who are currently performing exceptionally well in their role.”