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Leveraging the Team to Salvage a Frustrated High-Performer

High Performers
Internal Communication
One-on-one

24 May, 2020

Marc LeBrun, VP Engineering at Flow Kana, shows the value in establishing a collaborative relationship with a withdrawn but highly-capable employee. We can then use that bridge to draw the person back into the team and elevate everyone’s performance.

Problem

I had a very talented team member who was on a trajectory to leave his group by either creating increasing friction or becoming even more isolated. Our product manager brought her concern that this person wasn’t participating as much in standups and increasingly tended to go off and work alone. This individual was productive and extremely talented, but also exhibiting a lot of disaffection—a classic “flight-risk” profile.
 

I felt this would be a particularly sad outcome not only due to losing his immediate productivity but also because of the lost opportunity for this senior talent to potentially enhance and uplift the entire team’s level of performance as well as his own impact.
 

Actions taken

In our next 1-on-1 I made a point to remind him that an engineer’s job is not about typing lines of code, but delivering value, and that one of the important ways we wanted him to do that was by contributing to the overall improvement of his team, and not only individually. I wasn’t sure if this would resonate, but it reframed our focus from a purely individual issue to a more organizational perspective.
 

It developed during our conversation that he had begun to feel that others on his team were unable or unwilling to follow his lead and so he was better off just doing his own thing. He also shared concerns that he wasn’t appreciated enough for the value that he was delivering and indeed had thoughts of finding another company. We agreed this wasn’t in anyone’s interest, so we resolved to work together to craft a more constructive outcome by finding additional new ways for him to contribute to his team.
 

Unexpectedly, it also turned out he had some great ideas for some radical innovations and that he’d felt very frustrated to be unable to share them, due to the increasingly difficult communications patterns that had developed. I encouraged him that these were indeed valuable and welcome contributions, and helped him understand that to successfully implement them he’d need to get broad support, including his team as well as upper-management sponsorship and endorsement. Achieving that would require a more incremental and collaborative approach--it was too big a jump from being an isolated lone-wolf to directing a visionary technical paradigm shift for a group.
 

We, therefore, developed a staged plan that started with him first sharing his thoughts with the rest of the team via internal presentations, getting their feedback, and then incorporating those inputs to create a clear proposal he could to present to leadership.
 

Lessons learned

Executing this plan naturally required more interaction with his colleagues, which by itself improved everybody’s trust and comfort level. The internal presentations to the team were successful and he also benefited from their unanticipated insights. They, in turn, felt more connected to him and thus everyone became more mutually supportive.
 

Instead of just writing technically excellent code that nobody appreciated he began to catalyze a higher level of excellence across his squad, and a “virtuous circle” developed that allowed him to ultimately successfully present his insights to management, who tangibly expressed their appreciation and endorsement.
 

This restored his faith in engineering management and increased his awareness of the value of organizations and processes to magnify his impact. He became a much broader contributor to the success of his whole team. He was happier, his team was more effective and the whole organization benefited from his talent.
 

As managers we should remember that we can leverage our teams as amplifiers for the effectiveness of their members, beyond what they can achieve even as the most capable individual contributors.
 

Frustrated contributors can become uplifting teachers.


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