4 Ways You Can Fast Track Your Star Employee’s Career

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

How can you support and accelerate the career trajectory of your best performers? What do you need to do to keep them motivated for the short- and long-term?

If you've ever had a star employee on your team, you know how valuable they are.  A 2012 study from Indiana University has shown that high performers can do up to 400% more work than an average employee. Even more astoundingly, that number goes up to 800% for high-complexity jobs like being a manager.

Of course, that potential can go to waste if you can't find opportunities for them to develop. A lack of growth is among the leading causes of turnover everywhere. This has been confirmed by PwC, Mary Meeker's Internet Trend Report, Linkedin's Workplace Learning Report, and many other sources - and it's true for your high-performing employees especially.

You need to feed their hunger to learn and grow to be able to retain them for the long haul. That's why today's post gives you four approaches you can use to accelerate their career trajectory and keeping them happy and motivated.

star employees need your support to stay high performing

4 Ways to Support Your High Performing Employees

Investing time and resources in your best people is one of the most important things you can do as a leader. As Gallup's Marcus Buckingham explains in his book, "First, Break the Rules”:

"Talent is the multiplier. The more energy and attention you invest in it, the greater the yield. The time you spend with your best is, quite simply, your most productive time.”

Knowing how valuable this investment can be, there are a few things you can do to help your best performers fast track their career.

Table of Contents:

  1. Help them get mentors to support and understand their path forward
  2. Praise them regularly
  3. Involve them in important projects
  4. Support them systematically by giving them ‘performance pay'
Star employee discussion

1. Help them get mentors to support and understand their path forward 

When you see someone rising to the occasion in big ways and becoming a star contributor at your company, it's time to act.

It's important to have a career conversation with them and learn what they want to accomplish. Find out what role they're aiming for long term: a VP of Engineering? A CMO? COO? Founder? A principal or other high ranking individual contributor role? 

Once you know this, you can start helping them see how the work and growth at your company can help them get there. 

Think about who they could shadow to develop leadership skills. For example, if their ambition is to become a VP, introduce them to people who are already VPs in their field, so they can talk to them and ask them questions about their path.

That will allow them to understand what they really want to achieve and what the realistic paths are to get there.

It's also likely to accelerate both the mentor's and mentee's career growth. As this article from Forbes points out, mentees are promoted 5 times more often than those without mentors. Additionally, mentors themselves are 6 times more likely to be promoted.

Introducing them to someone who can support them will lower your workload as well; suddenly, their growth, who they ask advice from, and charting their future course is not just on your plate.

Finding a mentor for them is a win-win situation, because they get more support than you can provide alone, and you won't feel solely responsible for finding time to help them. 

Motivating star employees

2. Praise them regularly

Few things are as meaningful as someone telling you how much your efforts are appreciated, especially if the praise you receive is specific and frequent. 

The first thing you should do when fast tracking your star employee's career is tell them how important they are and how serious you are about helping them get even better.

Let them know they are a company pillar and how grateful you are to have them. Then, have a career conversation with them and talk to them about what they want to accomplish. 

A study from Gallup has shown getting "praise or recognition for good work” can increase a team's productivity by between 10% and 20%. Of course, that includes your star performers as well.

Don't assume that your stars know it. The worst thing you can do is make them feel taken for granted.

Instead, take time regularly to tell them. 

Star employee natural strenghts

Double Down on their Strengths

As a leader, you need to focus on your star's strengths and double down on what you think they're already particularly good at. As Gallup found:

"People who focus on their strengths every day are 6 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, more productive and more likely to say they have an excellent quality of life.” 

If you're not sure what their strengths are, take a closer look at their work and how they operate; over time it should become clear what they do best. Then, give them feedback and praise on things that they're doing well so they can do more of it, while continuing to improve.

This is a fantastic way to keep an eye on their development and help them focus on the important things. It's also crucial for regularly showing them you're behind them all the way.

For more in-depth instructions on how to give better praise, check out the following posts:

Star employee promotion

3. Involve them in important projects

Another great way to support and motivate your star performers is to give them meaningful projects that will look great on their resume as much today as they will ten years from now. 

The Bulls wouldn't leave Michael Jordan on the bench in the 4th Quarter, and you should similarly include your best people in key projects. Tap into their work ethic and think about projects that would be both engaging for them and high impact for you. 

For example, if this person wants to be a manager, plan for getting them involved in mentoring or hiring people and giving them other responsibilities that will accelerate their growth and preparation to become a leader.

However, do it in a smart way: have them hire for a role they know well, mentor someone who has a role they previously had, etc. That way they're using some of their knowledge and strengths combined with learning new things.

By doing this, they'll stay motivated for three key reasons:

  • You'll be showing them you trust them by giving them the important responsibility 
  • The impact of their work will be clear
  • If you paid attention to their growth goals and align them, they'll see how the work you give them helps them get closer to their long term goals

Star performers don't shy away from opportunities to grow - they embrace them. 

However, that doesn't mean they'll be great at every new task they try. 

Star employee managerial approach

Use Task Relevant Maturity to provide the right amount of support

Use the concept of Task Relevant Maturity to gauge how much support your best performers need and gradually encourage them to be more independent as time goes on. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, defines Task Relevant Maturity in the following way:

"How often you monitor should not be based on what you believe your subordinate can do in general, but on his experience with a specific task and his prior performance with it – his task relevant maturity…

As the subordinate's work improves over time, you should respond with a corresponding reduction in the intensity of the monitoring.”

If your team member is performing a new task for the first time, take a more hands-on approach and give them guidance regularly. As they become more comfortable with it, let them take the initiative and give them the freedom to organize projects, with all that's left for you is to control the scope and outcome. This way, they'll feel more comfortable taking on new projects and develop vital skills more quickly.

That first part is the most important; a star player will be frustrated if they get new responsibilities without any support and guidance. Make sure they're set up for success by keeping in mind that new tasks will need more support than the work they have been crushing. 

For a more detailed explanation of Task Relevant Maturity, check out our detailed post here:

Support star employee by giving them performance pay

4. Support them systematically by giving them ‘performance pay'

Some companies have an incentive system in place for accelerating their best employees' growth. This concept is known as ‘performance pay'. 

With performance pay, employees who perform at a consistently high level receive a salary increase, extra stock options, or other incentives in a greater amount than they normally would for their position, tenure, and job title. Of course, they continue to get these benefits only as long as they keep up their performance and consistently meet their goals.

A survey conducted by Payscale found that 65% of employees in America prefer bonuses based on personal performance. And some notable examples of companies with performance pay include IKEA, Coca Cola, General Electric, Pepsi, and H&M.

Performance pay is a great way to provide an immediate reward to your star performers. However, it comes with an important caveat.

A word of caution...

While performance pay is great as the cherry on top, using it as the only incentive can actually demotivate people.

A 2017 study from the London School of Economics concluded that financial incentives may reduce intrinsic motivation if not used in conjunction with other motivators. 

Research published in Harvard Business Review has shown that "interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility” are all more effective than bonuses at answering people's deep-seated need for growth and achievement.

That's why we recommend using performance pay as an addition to other, intrinsic motivators you structure around your best performing team member. Start with our suggestions 1-3 before considering mixing in performance pay.

And here are some additional tips on how to motivate your team regardless of your budget:

Conclusion: Use every piece of the puzzle to fast track your star's growth 

It's well worth taking time to think about what your star performers need. Start with having a frank, open conversation with them and let them know they're on the fast track and you greatly value them. 

Then, consider what you can do for them. Whether it's connecting them to the right people, making them feel special, offering incentives for their performance, or anything else you can think of - the extra effort will be worth it.

If you can find ways to combine intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, short- and long-term rewards, and give them career-changing projects, their performance and growth will start to rub off on the rest of your team. They'll help improve the performances of those around them, and they're much more likely to stick around at your company for the long term. 

Yet, essential to all of this is ongoing communication. Priorities can change for people, and you have to adapt if you want to keep great people.

Adapt to their changes.

Especially as you start connecting them to others farther ahead in their careers, they may find out that they want something a bit different. Maybe they want to be a Chief Architect instead of a VP of Engineering with management responsibilities, or a customer success star wants to try their hand at sales. 

Whatever the reason, you will only know if you continue to talk to them about their goals and progress. And the best time to do that is in their 1 on 1s. 

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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