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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published January 4, 2011

Keeping the disillusioned big dog 

This week we’re looking at managing your top performers – the big dogs in the organization who will power your recovery and competitive edge in 2011 – if you can keep them.Yesterday we saw the way in which Big Dogs emerge, and their initial footprint in the organization: heavy on tactics and actions, less so on the organization’s mission (vision, values and goals) and strategies.

Of course, those of you who have read Predictable Success know what happens next: the organization hits Whitewater, and the Big Dogs begin to get freaked out. As management begins to grapple with errors and quality problems by introducing systems and processes, the Big Dogs feel their autonomy being strangled, and they begin to lobby senior management to be excused from compliance.

In the short- and medium-term this can mean many angst-ridden discussions as management tries to get the balance right between on the one hand introducing needed systems, and on the other retaining high-fliers who are fully supportive of these great new systems – for everyone else, just not for themselves.

Eventually – and it can be a long, painful ‘eventually’, about a third of the Big Dogs will leave (I’m generalizing wildly here, but it’s usually around that number), not being able to adjust to what they see as claustrophobic over-systemization. Another one-third will have taken readily to the changed environment, being systems-minded to begin with. But what about the remaining third – those high performers who stay, but who feel out of water, distanced from what’s going on, perhaps even disillusioned or disengaged?

Here’s what I see happen most often with this group:

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The Big Rock

If you are interested in learning more about the “Mission, Goals…Actions” pyramid above, watch this short 7′ video where I explain it in more detail.

Here, management has moved the Big Dogs’ footprint upstream, to include more involvement with the organization’s strategy development. This happens for three main reasons: (1) Management is further from the Early Struggle / Fun stages and consequently feel less like they need to personally own and dominate vision and strategy; (2) the Big Dogs have built considerable sweat equity by their high performance over a period of time, giving them a ‘right’ to be at the strategic table; (3) management fears that without including the Big Dogs in their strategic thinking, they will lose even more than the one-third that have already gone in the transition through Whitewater.

This shift produces two positive outcomes, and one major negative. First the positives: (1) The ‘action bleed’ (all the stuff the Big Dogs have been throwing at the wall in the hopes it may stick) shrinks as they get more aligned with the organization’s overall strategies, and (2) now that they know the strategies better, the Big Dogs begin to try out more tactical options in implementing those strategies – leading perhaps to some ‘tactic bleed’ (tactics they try but don’t work), but overall making the organization more flexible and competitive.

The negative? It’s simple, but in the end, devastating:

Remember, this one-third of the top performer group aren’t enamored of systems and processes – part of the reason we’re extending their footprint is to keep them involved and engaged despite their reservations. And where do systems and processes ‘live’ in the organization? Right in the intersection between strategy and tactics. After all, that’s what most systems and processes are for – to ensure that the tactical implementation of strategies is executed in a consistently efficient manner.

Now, by extending the Big Dog’s footprint to the strategic arena, we have in effect empowered them to bypass systems and processes should they so choose. And do they so choose? This group do, yes. With the effect, in due course, of causing either a decline of the organization back into Whitewater, or, more likely by this stage, that many of this group of top performers eventually part ways with the organization when they discover that management’s support for systems and processes to stay in Predictable Success transcends personal loyalty – hitherto their trump card.

Eventually, management gets the message and begins to hire in a new cohort of top performers from the outside – Big Dogs from another pound, if you will, and tomorrow I’ll show what that footprint looks like.

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