This is why should you focus more on your top performers than your low ones

Startup founders? We’re naturally optimistic. We believe in our ideas and abilities, and we’re always bullish – maybe naively – about our company’s chances for success.

Founders are also, as it happens, naturally optimistic about the people that we recruit. We believe each of our employees has what it takes to be a strong performer and a meaningful member of our team – after all, we are the ones who hand-selected them.

To an extent, we believe we need to feel this way. In turn, if an employee is underperforming, we naturally want to invest resources into helping that person develop – but sometimes, that investment can eat a disproportionate amount of our own time and energy.

This desire to help everyone improve, although magnanimous, can quickly devolve into a scenario which can negatively impact both your business as well as other members of your team. Although counterintuitive, it’s better, instead, to invest that time in the people who are excelling and leading right now – the ones tangibly driving progress in your organization. The ones who account for your success.

Here’s why.

Micromanaging weak performers is a huge time suck

Let’s throw one thing out there: as the founder of a small company, you make hires so you can focus on other areas of the company—not to add more work to your already busy schedule.

Yet that’s what consistently weak performers do. They drain your time.

When my co-founder, Dennis, and I were hiring one of our first engineers, we ended up hiring someone who probably lacked adequate experience – mostly on account of time. We needed someone who could start working right away. We’d just received funding, and our list of mission-critical action items seemed to grow every day.

But the results of that hire were disastrous. We ended up investing more time checking this hire’s code than we would have if we’d written it ourselves – or held out for the right person. When there was a decision to be made, no matter how small, the engineer couldn’t make it on their own. Other maturing processes and departments stagnated and were starting to become neglected. We began to fall behind.

Startups, especially early ones, need employees who can run their domain autonomously. Better yet, startups need people who can wear a variety of hats and contribute, tangibly, in multiple ways.

People who need to be micromanaged do the opposite: they eat time and negate the contributions of others.

This is an unforeseen consequence of weak performers: they poison your company’s culture and demotivate your more foundational players

For one thing, when you as a manager spend all your time focusing on weak performers, strong performers will begin to wonder why you’re not paying attention to them. They’ll stop working as hard because they’ll figure, “What’s the point? I’m not being recognized for working hard anyway, so screw it.”

This is the opposite of what you want.

Especially in early stage startups, it’s better as a founder to invest time and attention in those who will be the ones standing alongside you years down the line, managing teams and actualizing progress. Not only do those folks deserve your time and attention – it’s simply a smarter investment. The only real way to cultivate and encourage loyalty is by spending time with an employee, involving them in important decisions and rewarding them for their efforts.

Make no mistake: this is an investment. Your time is valuable. But that’s why it’s best to invest it in people who prove worth it.

So what’s the best way to invest in your top performers?

This is the ultimate question. There are a variety of strategies, but the one I’ve seen prove most effective is to involve top performers in key decisions, and to grant them increased responsibility and transparency.

You’ll find this has something of a catalyzing effect: by giving promising employees additional responsibilities and challenges, along with increased insight into your decision-making processes, you’ll in turn lend them the chance to prove they’re capable of more than what you hired them for. And that’s when they’ll start to make a real difference.

Take one of our employees, Victor, for example.

Victor was an engine developer that Dennis and I hired early on. He was great at his job, but he also had a passion for game design and saw this as an essential skill to have if he were to ever run a game studio of his own. This was something we learned during his yearly performance review.

Victor was excelling by that point, so we decided to challenge him by giving him increased responsibility to affect other areas of the product. Fastforward 8 months: he is not only the lead of our engine team, but he has also led the charge on the game design for multiple core features.

This increased responsibility and room for growth fostered loyalty and an increased commitment to our mission. He’s still a key member of our team to this day.

Focusing on your top performers helps your business

This is worth repeating: investing in your top performers – the people who are leading and showcasing the kind of autonomous creativity and execution startups depend on – is, simply put, investing in your business’s future.

In addition to executing consistently, your top performers are the ones who, down the line, will help you come up with better ideas. They’ll provide you with the most valuable feedback. They’ll make quality hiring recommendations, and they’ll take responsibility off your shoulders.

This is, again, something we experienced with Victor. Although we hired him originally as an engine developer, he now influences a wide array of company processes, from managing the engine team, to game design, to feature roadmapping.

In addition to impacting our bottom line, his effectiveness and his passion have been infectious. He’s improved our company culture top to bottom, imposing a new standard that everyone around him just naturally began to meet.

And Victor is just one example. When we changed the way we invested our time and attention at scale, more encouraging changes started to occur:

  • We identified a filter for what warrants our attention and what doesn’t – what the team could resolve on their own vs. what needed our input.
  • Top performers started performing even better and getting more involved and ingrained in their teams, because they now felt like they had the ear of leadership and could really make a difference and have true product impact.
  • Strong performers started mentoring weak performers and holding them accountable for weak performance. It’s always better when peers hold each other accountable instead of the “boss”.

At the end of the day, you just don’t have time for weak performers.

The good news is, you can typically tell within two weeks of hiring someone whether or not they’ll be a weak performer. If employees truly care about the work and the mission, by their second week, even if they’re not making meaningful contributions, they’ll be working hard to compensate for that fact. And if they’re not – if they’re struggling and they’re draining time and energy – it’s best to simply let them go.

This is more necessary the younger your company is. Young startups need to move fast. You have no time or energy to waste on people who slow you down.

That might seem harsh – the opposite of an optimistic outlook – but the truth is, both for you and your company, your time remains a precious and finite resource. It pays to invest it in people who create value, not those who siphon it.

Sometimes, it’s more important to be pragmatic than optimistic.

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