Keeping Your Staff at Peak Performance

Jul 13, 2005

Joe Santana

One of the toughest challenges IT leaders face today is sustaining a high-level of performance over the long term.

As the number of projects hitting the table continues to increase, resource constrained IT organizations need more than just a burst of extra effort over a few weeks to keep up. They need to be able to ratchet up to a higher level of sustainable performance over the long-term.

Unfortunately, many of the management techniques employed today were inherited from the industrial age and are not effective in maintaining peak performance among teams of today's knowledge workers.

As a result, according to experts such as Gallup, on average only 20% of the people in your team are fully engaged and passionate about their work. That represents a huge opportunity in potential productive power waiting to be harnessed.

So, how can you tap into this 80% of potential? What can you do to ratchet up performance in the short-term and, more importantly, sustain it over the long-term?

Here are five areas you can immediately focus on in order to create an environment that supports high performance:

As the leader, make sure you provide clear goals that link to your team. Having alignment is undisputedly a good thing. It keeps your most scarce resource, your team, focused on the things that will make the most impact for the business and your IT.

Despite all the talk about alignment, most IT organizations admit that it eludes them. One reason misalignment occurs is while CIOs may spell out alignment objectives for themselves and IT, they often do not clearly articulate what that means in terms of the goals and objectives at the department and individual level.

The result? Attendees of the CIO meeting generally go back to their desks to focus on the same tactics and tasks in the same manner as they did before the meeting.

What's missing is clarity relative to the unanswered question for managers and team members, which is: "What does this mean to me?"

When preparing this type of presentation, make sure your clearly answer the following questions:

  • What will the newly aligned organization look like from top to bottom?
  • How does this alignment impact the work your managers and their teams do?
  • What goals should they be pursuing that will contribute to the attainment of your higher-level alignment goals?
  • What rewards can they obtain as a result of putting energy behind this effort?
  • How will any associated risks be addressed so as to remove obstacles to success or potential down sides of this plan for you and for them?
  • Remember that one of your toughest jobs as a leader is to present a better future in such a clear and compelling way as to cause those you lead to change their behavior.

    Pick people to manage others that are singularly good at identifying the talents and passions of others and leveraging them to the maximum. In IT, as in many other specialized professions, it is often the best individual contributors that get tapped for management roles.

    While there is nothing wrong with picking from proven performers, you should also make sure that people who are promoted to management have the innate talent to perform well in this role. Often a superstar player will simply not have what it takes to make others into superstar players.

    The bottom line is that good managers have one key talent above all others: they have the ability to draw out the best talents in people and fully engage them in getting work done. This talent is critical to releasing the full capabilities of your teams.

    Hire individual contributors that are naturally gifted at doing what you need done. As in promoting managers, whenever you hire someone look for an innate talent and passion for the work at hand.

    There is a saying I once read in a book by fellow author Bill Jensen that goes like this: "I can train a chicken to climb a tree, but I would rather hire a squirrel."

    People that are naturally talented at doing what you need done, will always excel and perform at a higher level than the person who lacks the natural aptitude.

    Don't de-motivate your people. According to studies, managers can stop worrying about motivating people since 95% of the people you hire already come with built-in motivation.

    This is especially true when they are doing work that engages their natural talents.

    Essentially, what most people require in order to stay naturally motivated is fair treatment, fair salary, fair benefits, a sense of job security, and to have a few friends among their co-workers.

    In effect all you need to do to keep people from becoming de-motivated is to built and maintain a culture of respect, letting sound ethics guide you, your managers and your people. Couple that with hiring talented managers, providing clear and compelling leadership and you have a powerful performance support system.

    Promote work/life balance. This may seem advice that is out of place on a piece about sustaining peak performance, but that is far from the truth.

    One of the biggest mistakes that leaders, managers and individual contributors make is to ignore the natural need for recuperation. Breaks during the course of a busy day, personal time during evenings and weekends as well as other re-generating activities are essential to attaining and sustaining peak levels of performance.

    Smart managers know that telling a person who pulled 60 or more hours of work in one week to go home and rest or take a day off is not just being nice, its good business sense too.

    Building sustainable performance is not a short-term fix. It is not accomplished through "rah-rah" meetings that pump everyone full of adrenaline in order to get this month or quarters work done.

    Building sustainable performance is a long-term leadership commitment toward building excellence. It is built on a way of leading and managing that will continue to produce returns in performance and put your team way ahead of the pack.

    Joe Santana is an IT organizational development specialist and thought-leader and co-author of "Manage IT." He can be reached at or via his Web site


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