During my tenure as a vice president of human resources for a credit union in Maryland, I worked with two human resources generalists on my team. Both were good at their jobs; they each had completed training and certifications in HR. Yet one was exceptional—she had a few more years of experience than the other employee and had gained knowledge and confidence through everyday practice. She was a self-starter who I could give any project to and be confident that the result would be excellent and completed on time.
I remember a conversation we had as we discussed rewards and recognition. She made it clear that she never wanted to be publicly acknowledged, and she also didn’t need constant affirmation that she was doing a good job. She certainly wanted to know if she did something exceptional, or if there was an area she could improve, but she didn’t need daily affirmation. What she really wanted was autonomy to complete her projects and access to growth opportunities and higher-level projects to continue to increase her skills.
The other employee performed well in her position, yet she required a different type of management. She asked more detailed questions, wanted more direction with projects, and requested feedback on her approach to an issue or project more often. She had less experience with the practical application of HR and was still building her confidence. Weekly meetings were the right cadence for this employee so I could provide more detailed feedback and let her know if she was on or off track. She needed more reassurance in her role, so I would check in with her more often. Once given the information and guidance she needed, she would perform tasks and projects very well. While this approach would have felt like micromanagement to my high performing employee, it was the best approach to support the other employee to be successful.
As leaders, we must be able to adjust our style to the individual we are working with to bring out their best performance. There is no “one size fits all” in leadership. Great leaders build a relationship with each employee and flex their style to cultivate success for that individual.
Highly skilled professionals often require a different type of leadership style than more entry level employees.
The following are generalizations—each employee is different and unique, and may be a blend of each of these styles:
Entry level employee: provide clear, step-by-step instructions and guidelines. You may need to check in more frequently, and don’t be surprised if the employee approaches you with more detailed questions. You may need to walk an employee through the process, and it may take more time to train up front. As an employee becomes more confident and capable, move to a more supportive style. Be clear about check-ins and how you expect the employee to communicate with you.
Highly skilled employee: less directive, more supportive. Provide a clear vision, guidelines, or instructions, and then let the employee use their judgment and skills to deliver results. Ask for their opinions and ideas and encourage them to share them. Involve them in important decisions regarding a member or an issue. Give them all the resources and background information to do their job well, and then provide the independence to do the work. Be clear about how much you want to be updated on projects, and then trust the employee to manage the project. Offer support and guidance when asked.
During the pandemic, many credit unions shifted most employees to a virtual model, which required managers to adjust how they measured results. Most of us were accustomed to tracking hours at work. Once employees were working from home, that model wasn’t effective. Many leaders struggled with this, as they were accustomed to measuring an employee’s time in the office rather than results or outcomes. I know several high performing employees who were frustrated when their manager required them to be constantly connected all day instead of trusting they would get the work done independently. High performing employees don’t thrive in an environment of micromanagement and rigid policies. They are successful when given the authority and autonomy to apply their knowledge, skills, and judgment, and are often much more productive than the average employee. Focusing on results and outcomes is the best approach to managing high performers.
As our organizations continue to evolve, and the needs and values of employees shift, leaders will need to foster an environment of support and flexibility when leading teams. Exceptional leaders will learn what will unlock the potential and best performance of each team member and adjust their style to facilitate high performance.