HIPOs: Overworked and Under-Challenged

The squeeze is still on for top talent as organizations grapple with change initiatives, downsizing, early retirements and leaner workforces. According to Tom Searcy, founder and CEO of sales strategy company Hunt Big Sales, it’s causing some effective high-potential employees to disengage.

Why do effective, smart employees sometimes fall off?
People can be over-challenged or under-challenged. Both of those things are dangerous. Over-challenged can be about things besides their job — they can be overburdened because of family issues, financial issues, health issues, organizational requirements, or they can be burdened because of the loss of another employee. Their area is understaffed, they’re given something they’re not skilled in doing or given poor directions.

They feel overburdened. Because of that, where they used to be great and doing a super job, all of a sudden, bang, we see mistakes. They never missed a meeting, appointment or forgot an assignment; all of a sudden those things start to happen. Part of it could be that there is too much going on.

The second thing is, you have good performers, they’re doing a good job, but they start to become under-challenged. What I find with under-challenged people is that they get as distracted by the lack of things that are going on and miss meetings, appointments and deadlines. Mistakes happen just as much because their minds turn off. The part of the brain that the job was challenging when they first took it on, and they were very good, it starts to say, “This is rote and boring and doesn’t appeal to me,” and their creative brain or detail-oriented brain shuts off.

Is it more common that the individual is overwhelmed or underwhelmed?
Right now, both aforementioned circumstances could happen. Organizations are trying to right-size their businesses; they are pulling out layers and layers of people, which means more responsibilities are left on those who remain with the company. People are under-challenged — more challenged about stuff they care less about, so they make mistakes — or they have more work that is beyond their capability, so they make mistakes.

As crazy it sounds, people are overworked and under-challenged. That’s the No. 1 issue right now. More executives are being burdened with task-level assignments rather than more strategic assignments.

What should leaders do when their go-to person becomes less reliable?
For me, the first thing is to say, “What is it inside this person’s world over the course of a window, let’s say 30 to 90 days, that has changed that could have overburdened or under-challenged them?” Something has changed. If you don’t know, you can ask, but you may know. There are limits to the questions you can ask, but extrapolate that something is happening outside of their work environment that’s causing these circumstances to happen.

Once you figure out what has changed, the second thing to do is determine, “Is there a way for me to help that person and help them think through their workload, responsibilities and circumstances so they can get through this rough period and still perform at an adequate level or above-adequate level for the benefit of the business?”

The third thing I encourage people to do is get these employees into specific, shorter-measurement cycles. If I had a highly talented person and I was used to letting them go for 30 days, giving them assignments and projects for 30 days and letting them run, I need to rope that back into two-week windows or one-week windows for a period of time until they’re back on their feet and my confidence has been recovered in them.

How can talent managers help?
First, understand that instead of moving toward punishment based on failure to perform, try to understand what happened. This is the part that’s so odd. If you’ve got a real hitter who’s not hitting anymore, they didn’t get dumb or indifferent overnight. The first thing they can do is diagnose what happened.

After they’ve done the diagnostic part, they have to look at all the circumstances and say, “Can we shift job responsibilities for a period of time? Can we adjust hours for a period of time? Is it appropriate for a leave to happen at this point? Is there a career path we could put this person on?”

Talent managers’ job is to think beyond the job description. Their job is to think about talent. The job description tells us what the person is doing now and is supposed to do; it doesn’t tell us what the person is capable of. One of the talent manager’s roles is to figure out what talent is capable of. It might be different after we’ve passed through this rough spot.

As a talent manager, do you build a staircase opportunity for your best people? Is there a career path for them? The light will burn out if they’re not aspiring to something. When you hire someone, part of your responsibility is to say, “Here are the stair steps you have to take, and here is what success looks like at each stair step.” What I find organizations do is they provide an org chart and say, “Work hard, and you’ll move up the ladder.”

High-quality talent managers establish a staircase with measures so the person is always working toward something. That doesn’t mean everyone wants to be promoted, but most of your high-performing people do want challenges, even if their desire is to stay in the role they’re in for a long period of time. Just doing the same thing again and again is usually not enough.