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Sep 1, 2021

A critical skill for any leader is taking a middle performer and — through coaching, mentoring, development, etc. — transforming them into a high performer. When we talk about great leaders coaching up their people, typically, this is what we mean. But truly transforming someone from average to excellent is easier said than done.

In a new study from Leadership IQ, “The Leadership Skills Gap,” we asked more than 3,000 leaders to rate their own leadership proficiency. And surprisingly, only 26% said that they had advanced skills (can successfully and consistently perform this skill) or expert skills (recognized authority on this topic) on the issue of developing middle performers into high performers.

By contrast, 39% of leaders rated themselves as having intermediate skills; while they use this skill consistently, they experience a mix of successes and failures. An additional 17% considered themselves advanced novices (i.e., they’ve attempted this skill a few times with moderate success), and 11% rated themselves struggling novices (i.e., they’ve attempted this skill a few times without much success). The remainder either had no experience or considered themselves beginners.

By way of comparison, 61% of leaders consider themselves advanced or expert when it comes to leading teams. Clearly, developing middle performers is a relatively weak area for leaders.

The Difficulty of Developing Middle Performers

One reason why developing middle performers is so difficult is that there isn’t one easy answer as to why someone is a middle, rather than a high, performer. Plenty of leaders and organizations want there to be an easy answer, so they often hew to the belief that middle performers are limited in their abilities, that they’ve maxed out their talent and simply can’t perform any better. 

But five minutes of talking to even a few middle performers reveals that a lack of talent usually isn’t the issue restraining their performance.

Some employees lack the confidence to make the leap to star employees. As sad as it is, there are more than a few people who’ve never had a boss, teacher, or coach take them aside and say, “You’ve got what it takes to be awesome, and I believe in you.” 

Others really don’t know how to be a star at your company. They may look at your current high performers and, instead of seeing diligent workers, see employees who attended the same school or worked at the same previous company as the boss. They might see people who are comfortable socializing outside of work with top leadership. Or perhaps they see that high performers tend to be more extroverted. Even though none of those issues may represent the criteria for consideration as a star employee at your company, it’s possible your middle performers see things differently.

The Burdens of Burnout

Of course, there are middle performers who look at the burnout and quality of life of your company’s high performers and think, “There’s no way I’m suffering like they do.” If your high performers are sending emails at midnight, working longer hours, taking on the most arduous projects, and fixing everyone else’s mistakes, your middle performers may view being a star employee as too painful. That’s one reason why, in the study “Employee Burnout In 2021”, we discovered that a whopping 71% of leaders expect that high performers are going to quit because of employee burnout.

There are myriad reasons why middle performers haven’t reached the ranks of your star employees. But if we want leaders to become more adept at developing and growing those folks, managers and executives need to start having some deep conversations to diagnose the root causes.

For all the consternation about recruiting and hiring more high performers, the reality is that most organizations have a largely untapped pool of star employees. Sure, we can always spend months trying to increase the numbers of high performers in our recruiting pipeline, but wouldn’t it be even easier to teach leaders how to turn their middle performers into high performers? These strategies aren’t mutually exclusive, but one does offer a faster and less expensive path forward.

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