Building on Thoughts from Experts: Managing & Leveraging the Best

Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D.

This is part seven of a multi-part Blog series on strengthening your team by building on thoughts from experts. The foundation for these articles derives from comments made by writers in the Harvard Business Review over the years to which I add my expertise and experience.

We accept nothing but the best.

We have the best people in the business.

The best results come from the best people.

As a manager, I have it easy because my people are so good.

It is likely that you may have heard one or more of the phrases above at some point in your professional career. In fact, the first three statements have probably been a tag line (or part of one) a few times. But what about that fourth statement?

As many of us have discovered, being able to bring the best and brightest on board is often a challenge, especially for smaller organizations without deep pockets. The recruiting and hiring side of businesses have methods they use to attract these stars to your organization. But, guess what? Once you’ve got them, their job is done…but the job of keeping them has only begun.

This is where that fourth statement bothers me as a leader. Too often in the past, supervisors and mid-level managers have been able to ride the laurels of their employees’ superb efforts. The problem here is that your best and brightest can see what is going on and wondering when they will get their shot at higher-level tasks, projects, and positions. For managers who subscribe to that fourth statement the prospect of keeping your best and brightest–let alone engender a culture of trust and respect–becomes little more than a fading goal fraught with missteps that resulted in the loss of those employees who were high achievers and who could have presented major contributions had they remained with the organization.

Yes, having those best and brightest employees can, indeed, be a boon for managers; however, they may take more work to manage–both in meeting their professional development needs and employee retention. The Harvard Business Review presented three Do’s & Don’ts when managing your smartest and most productive employees.

Table 1. Managing Do’s & Don’ts

managing do's and don'ts

Smart people rarely take a manager’s word at face value–they have a need to understand why you are asking [or telling] them to do something. Smart people are not impressed by a fancy office or titles–they are impressed by how much you know, share, and mentor. You do not hire smart people to be drones–you hire them because they have the skill sets critical to success for your organization; they often gain satisfaction from determining the best way to accomplish an assigned task and take it on as a challenge…so let them!

All too often managers cast a pall of discouragement on their employees or take actions that result in the employees not being able to accomplish their assigned tasks. This is typically unintended behavior; rather, it stems from managers not understanding enough about their best and brightest employees and, as a result, not understanding the best ways to motivate and support them. This phenomenon is not limited to new, inexperienced, or junior managers–it is also a challenge for senior leaders, especially as they rise to positions farther from the deckplate employees. 

High-performing and highly intelligent employees pose a continual challenge to managers and leaders; however, there are steps that you can take to optimize their success–and that of the organization. Harvard Business Review suggests three techniques to help enable your best and brightest to succeed and grow professionally while benefitting the organization.

  1. Push them. Help them set high, achievable goals and a long-term vision for what they want to accomplish professionally and personally. In order to do this, managers and leaders must first find out the employee’s key attributes and skill sets, planning assignments that will boost the employee as well as the organization.
  2. Make them visible. Showcase these employees as they accomplish great things! It is not only good for the employee but also sets an “it can be done” attitude within the organization and may prompt other employees to increase their efforts as well.
  3. Let them go. What? Gain this superstar, train them, mentor them, groom them, and then let them go? Simply put, your highest-performing people need room to continue growing. If your organization has no further career track for them to climb it is likely that their motivation [and dedication] will wane over time, resulting in a backward slide rather than continual growth. If it makes sense for their continued professional development, let them move on–in fact, you can help them find the next opportunity, helping them leave on a positive note that may come back to benefit your organization in the future through things like partnerships, Chambers of Commerce, business alliances, civic organizations, etc.

In Closing…

To wrap it all up in a nice little bow, managing and leading the best and brightest provides the opportunity for enhanced organizational success. It can make “the Boss” look good often. Because of this, managers may find that they depend increasingly on these superstar employees as time goes on. But it is equally important–and more work for the manager and leader, in my opinion–to provide opportunities for professional growth, constructive feedback, and letting the spotlight shine on the employee instead of the leader or manager when that employee’s efforts resulted in success.

We have heard before the phrase praise in public; counsel in private. I had a simple rule one step beyond that with those leaders for whom I worked, relative to how I led my people–I told my bosses that I welcomed them to give my people pats on the back when they deserved it, but that I expected them to come to me if something was wrong that my department did and let me handle it. Simply put, I wanted my bosses to see the best in my people and to let me take care of improvements that needed to be made or problems that arose. In every case, the system worked and my people were constantly progressing and achieving new heights of performance…a win-win!

Did you like this article? A “LIKE” and a “SHARE” would be appreciated greatly!


Join me next week for the eighth post in this series: Negativity & Change.


Want to know more about executive leadership? I facilitate a half-day executive seminar that brings concepts to the table for collaborative exercises and application to your organization’s needs. Check out our offerings here or call 866.399.8287 to find out more from a representative today!


Harvard Business School. (2011). Management tips from Harvard Business Review. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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