How to rapidly motivate your most talented people

high performers leading the professional firm motivation professional challenges right rewards Mar 19, 2024
Beneath the surface

When great professionals are tough-minded, self-motivated and set high standards, they look like they don’t need help. They may even tell you that. But it’s not true. Even strong, ‘elite’ performers need help to stay on top of the challenges they tackle.

Talented professionals are human too!


Top performers are a breed apart – sometimes. The tempo of work in tough markets and working with Tier 1 organisations, brings continuous stress and little time for reflection. When this takes people to their limits, highly capable professionals start behaving badly, even childishly. They start bullying junior staff, getting angry in meetings and asking for ridiculous financial rewards.

Review hell.  


The annual review is where things get interesting. I was looking at this with one of my clients recently. Willem runs about a thousand people across Asia for his firm and the last couple of years have been particularly challenging, with changes in the market, key partner changes, some big professional wins and a big push to recruit top graduates.


‘Oh, I’m really not looking forward to the review process.’


‘Why? Is it worse than normal?’


‘Well, they’ve all got to be finished in a month and there are a few who just make the whole thing difficult.’


‘In what ways?’


‘On the one hand, there’s Marie-Anne; great technician, quite good with clients and a go-to woman for difficult tasks. She always gets things done. But, I’ve got to say, she’s hard work. I find her emotionally brittle, you know? Sudden emotional outbursts and a rollercoaster in the review even if the feedback to her will be good overall.’


‘So how are you going to deal with her?’


‘Well, she’ll get a big bonus but she’s not really ready for the next stage of partnership, so there’ll be a long fight about that. She executes brilliantly, and most clients like her but she’s not rounded enough for a good business case for promotion to practice head. She gets really angry; well, not angry, it's mostly bluster, but it makes her hard to handle and I sometimes have to put out fires with her team. I find her hard to calm down if she’s not happy.’


‘And the other?’


‘Oh, the other one, Marcus. I’m sure you’ve come across the type. Convinced he’s completely the best thing since sliced bread. Really arrogant, and that’s saying something in this business. Always wants that extra thing, some toy no one else gets or another percentage point on the bonus, or a different title. He even got cards printed, without my knowing, that gave him a promotion! At least he does win some great deals, though I worry about the quality. I’m not looking forward to that conversation!’


Real rewards


As Willem & I talked it through, a few issues came to the surface.


Willem’s firm has a superb and growing reputation internationally that is only now beginning to be accepted in Asia. That means the standards are international, partners and associates are expected to be very mobile and more transactions are cross-border. This brings tough comparisons with standards accepted around the world, which cuts both ways. You can't rest on your professional status; you’re only as good as your last deal and your performance requirements are always increasing.


No partner or associate feels secure. We worked out that the top performers, including Marcus and Marie-Ann, had never enjoyed a formal celebration of achievement since joining the senior ranks. The non-stop pressure saw to that. Or rather, Willem’s own relentless style meant that celebrations were brisk and constrained.


We found something that is common to all professional, high-achievement teams that I’ve worked with. The rewards did not match what the team needed. There were financial rewards but the non-financial rewards were absent or accidental.


As we looked under the surface of this issue, and reflected on what drove it, we could see some of the following:


  • Insecurity – some good performers had been let go, (for behavioural reasons) and not all staff understood why.
  • Vulnerability – the standards were exacting and changing. So there was a common in-joke that ‘you need 110% performance not to get fired around here. Sorry, that was only 109% - you’re fired.’
  • Insignificance – the firm was a new arrival in Asia and only a small part of the global firm, so it was hard to achieve something that would get noticed in New York.
  • Collegiality – the sense of community that is so central to strong professional teams is particularly important in Asia. So the loss of professional friends and the turbulence caused by so many new arrivals was unsettling.


The more serious pattern we could see was that deep needs, when unmet, surface as bullying, arrogance, bluster, anger or their obverses, timidity, insecurity, sullenness & depression.


In the limited time we had, Willem & I couldn’t solve the whole range of cultural or individual issues. But we landed on one important idea.


Create an awards event.


This might sound a bit odd, but for Willem, creating an awards event proved a breakthrough. It took some effort to organise, but we set the key design principles in place with the help of some of the support staff, and it was a riotous success. Why?


  1. The awards were what people wanted.
    1. Best deal (giving Marcus his Significance)
    2. Best solution (building Marie-Ann's sense of Security)
    3. Best contribution (an award for Teamwork)
    4. Best failure (an award to encourage Perseverance)
  2. The firm had time for strengthening social bonds so vital to Collegiality.
  3. Some members who were in support functions were brought into the limelight and Acknowledged for their contribution.
  4. The award winners were interviewed on stage in front of the firm. This was an ego boost; but it also meant the whole organisation learnt something about how they had succeeded. The case studies, deftly explored by a good interviewer, became core teaching material for the firm.


So the flip side of Willem’s difficulty became a source of significant business value. Standards improved, morale improved, retention improved and so did recruitment.


Reward by need, not money


The experience with Willem happens all the time in high-performing teams. The pressure is such that reviews become a trial. Yet the difficulties themselves become a source of initiatives that produce solid business outcomes.


When you reflect on the toughest people in your firm how would you answer the following?


  • What do they really want, emotionally?
  • What are they most afraid of?
  • How can we those needs and fears, with dignity and professionalism?
  • What cultural value can we emphasise in the process? (eg pride in excellence, integrity, creative collaboration, respect)


When you are clear about these notions, your action follows naturally. You already know all this. You just need time to bring it to the surface to inform your plans for a better culture that delivers results sustainably.


What’s your own (de)motivator?


Of course in the end we spotted an issue for Willem himself. A gifted negotiator, he was brilliant at maintaining his cool despite the pressure. So he read the bad behaviour of his team members through his own filter. At first he couldn’t see why anyone would demean themselves the way Marie-Ann and Marcus did.


Once he saw they were expressing a normal human and professional need, he acted quickly. He found the right rewards – the Awards were very much not financial – and the review process became highly productive. Both Marcus and Marie-Ann now have their business cases before the global partnership committee.


What is the deep reward that motivates you? What is the emotional experience that demotivates you? What is the nature of your professional pride and what happens when it’s under threat? Are you a Marie-Ann, a Marcus or a Willem?


When you know how to understand and provide the rewards your top talent are really seeking, you have the key to long term elite performance.

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