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3 simple rules to manage top talent

Are top-end employees motivated by compensation and big monetary rewards?

The general view in business is that all top-end talent are highly motivated by big monetary rewards.  However, professor at and the former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Roger L. Martin, claims this is only true in a minority of cases.

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, he states that he hasn’t met a single person truly at the top end of the talent distribution who is highly motivated by compensation. Not one. Yes, he says, he’s met lots of successful people who are highly motivated by compensation: CEO’s who pump up the perceived value of their company to sell it, hedge fund managers who destroy companies for short-term gain, investment bankers who get their clients to acquire companies they shouldn’t to earn big fees, consultants who sell their clients work that they don’t need, and me-first athletes who poison their teams.

But none of these are the kind of top-end talent who make their organisation great for a sustained period.  During his 15 years of managing talent as dean of the Rotman School of Management, and previously as co-head of Monitor, he has managed some of the best and brightest employees and the strategy consulting industry worldwide. Over his 25 years’ experience, he developed three rules for managing top-end talent.

  • Treat them as individuals, not as members of a class

Top-end talent doesn’t want to be treated as a member of a class — even if it is an exalted class. They want to be treated as individuals. Each member of the top-end talent class spends their life striving to be unique. It is discordant with them at a very deep level if you treat them any other way. And, conversely, it makes them warm inside every time they are treated as a unique, valuable individual.

  • Provide opportunity continuously

Martin says that the biggest enemy for top-end talent is blocked opportunity, especially on the way up. If they are motivated to become top talent, they want big challenges — and the sooner, the better. If they are blocked and made to wait for opportunity to be available, they will simply go somewhere else.

This should be handled with caution though as they may blame you if you allow them to bite off too much and they fail. But managing top-end talent requires leaning aggressively into giving them as many opportunities as you reasonably can. Win their loyalty by being the provider of opportunities that enable them to keep growing and learning.

  • Give Pats on the Back 

Martin says he sees a lot of managers making big mistakes on this front. Top-end talent are not indifferent to praise, even though they may be highly driven and intrinsically motivated. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Talented people spend all their time doing pretty difficult things. To do what they do, they have to flirt regularly with — and actually experience — failure. For this reason, they need regular pats on the back. Otherwise, they become sad or resentful and may drift away from the organisation.

When giving praise, ensure it’s done in a fashion consistent with the first two rules: It has to be individualised. The generic year-end praise will be a negative, not a positive. And tying the praise to the opportunity that has been taken on and successfully completed is what will make it most effective.

To rely on top-end talent producing outstanding organisational performance, you must treat your best people as individuals, find ways to give them opportunities even when bureaucracy gets in your way, and shower them with praise when they succeed.

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