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How to Manage Overachievers

Overachievers have the drive, determination, passion, and energy
needed to move huge projects forward. But they're not like other
employees. You need to lead them differently if you want to take advantage of
all they have to offer. You also need to watch out
for characteristic quirks that can undermine their success: They sometimes set
unrealistic expectations, work insane hours, and take risks to succeed at any
cost. Without some savvy supervision, many can lose perspective and become
obsessed, dysfunctional, and ultimately unable to perform.

In order to manage overachievers well, you need to understand their
personality type and build a relationship on trust, so they know you have their
best interest in mind. Here we'll show you how to curb the destructive
tendencies that can disrupt a star performer's productivity and
develop positive management skills to keep them — and you —

Identify the Overachiever

Goal: Recognize overachievers on your team and during
job interviews.

The most important part of managing overachievers is recognizing
them early — as early as the job interview. An overachiever’s
work and personal history will no doubt show that they take the initiative to
get things done — as will glowing reports from their references. Don’t
ask overly personal questions, but do pose questions like, “What did
you do in college aside from academics?” If the candidate responds, “I
put myself through school running my own window-washing company, and I was also
president of my fraternity,” you’re probably talking to an

Think you already have an overachiever on your team? Look for
some telltale signs:

Takes on tasks without being told or goes beyond the boundaries
of their job description to solve problems

Prefers not to work in teams or take the time to follow basic
processes and job functions

Becomes overly concerned with accomplishing tasks, no matter which
job function you plug them into

“Overachievers typically forget to communicate vital
information, often take shortcuts, and leave the details to someone else,”
says Douglas May, vice president of worldwide sales at security software firm
Bit9. “They may not tell you the entire story right away to keep you
from thinking they’ve set expectations too high.” May says an
overachiever on his team could be in the final stages of negotiating a
million-dollar deal, but May wouldn’t know about it until the deal has

Essential Ingredients

Four Ways to Spot an Overachiever

We asked top managers how they know when they’re
dealing with an overachiever. Here’s what they said:

1. Drive “Overachievers don’t
always understand the reasons for their success and often question the outcome,
so they push harder. They easily lose patience with those who don’t
push as hard. Many have difficulties interacting socially.”
Frank Tallman, director and C-level executive coach at Professional Development

2. High Expectations “During the job interview,
ask questions like, ‘How did you put yourself through college?’
to identify self-starters and independence. Most have extremely high
expectations of themselves and others around them.” — Toby
Tobin, vice president of sales operations for the Mountain West region at Xerox

3. Impatience “Most overachievers are impatient
when asked to explain the same thing more than once. They don’t
understand why people can’t see the big picture as they do.”
Coppola, director at
independent movie studio Ears XXI

4. Good Judgment “Many have sharp problem-solving
skills, foresight, good acumen, and the ability to blend into the company’s
culture.” Ken Elefant, founding
partner of venture capital firm Opus Capital

Understand the Personality Type

Goal: Learn what motivates overachievers in order to
get the best out of them.

For overachievers, completing tasks above and beyond
expectations provides the same physical and mental high as a drug. But the sensation
gets harder to come by as time wears on, so don’t expect them to get
comfortable and remain in their current position for more than two to three
years. Most appreciate your mentoring but get bored quickly and move on to the
next challenge.

Don’t just give overachievers pats on the back and
expect gratitude in return. Because they tend to be spontaneous and have little
patience for protocol, overachievers demand more of your time than others. For
example, they may want to bounce around new ideas at a moment’s notice.
Stephen Kern, director of decision support systems in Pfizer’s global
manufacturing division, likes working with overachievers, but admits they can
spend too much time on a project and not get things done. “There’s
an upside to having overachievers on your team,” Kern says, “but
it can take a lot of energy to focus them because they’re continually
looking to accomplish things beyond the obvious tasks.”

Overachievers can often appear scattered and unable to focus, but
that might merely signal that they’re focused too intently on
one task. And since they hate to be wrong, they don’t always respond
well to criticism. William Quigley, managing director of Clearstone Venture
Partners, finds this problem among CEOs and company founders. As a board member
for several companies, Quigley says he spends much of his time asking
overachieving chief executives probing questions. “I don’t
find it useful to tell them about a problem in their supply chain and give them
a solution,” he says. “Instead I ask them overarching
questions about their priorities: Do you feel resource constrained? What areas
could you use more help with?”


Related Books

Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even
More Successful” by Marshall
Goldsmith and Mark Reiter (Hyperion, 2007)

Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” by
Daniel Pink (Riverhead Books, 2006)

Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence” by
Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee (Harvard Business School
Press, 2004)

Lead by Inspiring, Not by Commanding

Goal: Give top performers the flexible environment
they need.

Overachievers don’t like to be told what to do. Managers
get the best results from them if they involve them in decisions and planning
whenever possible. If there’s a problem with their work, rather than
telling them how to fix it, ask them what they think the solution should be.
Here are a few strategies for hands-off management:

Provide emotional coaching. Praise them for work well
done. Though they pretend to ignore the pat on the back, overachievers know
their worth and won’t respect you if you don’t acknowledge
their contributions. They sometimes get bogged down in details and need a
manager to inspire, motivate, set goals, and provide direction. They also need
someone to provide occasional reality checks. Bit9’s May says he provides
emotional coaching to his sales staff by continually reinforcing positive
attitudes. “I have to tell them, ‘No, I’m not
going to fire you for only selling 100 percent of your monthly quota rather than
150 percent,’” he says.

Remove obstacles. Perceived or real barriers could prompt
overachievers to quit. Leverage your employees’ status to cut through
red tape and pave the way for success. Most executives know their company’s
top performers — from professional services to sales and marketing.
Use that to your advantage to make business processes easier for those who meet
specific quotas. For example, you might allow an IT professional with a proven
track record to gain approval on specific code development more quickly. Both Xerox
and IBM bypass red tape to make it easier for top performers to fast-track
their projects.

Follow through with commitments. Overachievers are not
easily fooled — and they’re quick to recognize insincerity.
Keep your word with them. You’ll earn their trust and respect. “Your
loyalty toward them will also emphasize good work ethics, such as, ‘Don’t
strive for achievement and run people over in the process,’”
says psychologist and executive coach Robert Pasick.

Tap into their creativity. To keep overachievers from
getting bored, managers need to create an atmosphere in which the employees can
explore their own ideas. Google, for instance, allows employees to spend 20
percent of their time each week on pet projects — which may or may
not turn out to be profitable for the company. “As a manager, you need
to keep an open mind,” says Don Kosak, chief technology officer at
search engine Lycos. “Remain receptive to new ideas because many times
your overachievers will take problems and come up with solutions you never

Hot Tip

Star Power

One way to keep overachievers happy is to determine their
long-term goals, figure out ways to tie those into current assignments, and
find projects that make them shine. During weekly team meetings, Pfizer’s
Kern keeps staffers focused and interested in tasks at hand by associating the
current project with their long-term career goals. Kern also holds periodic “folder
reviews” with individuals who overachieve, using the time to coach the
overachiever and talk about his or her career goals.

Overachievers continually look for their next promotion,
Kern says. “They can handle the promotion, but I need to make sure
they’re working on projects that highlight their capabilities,”
he says. “Overachievers need to shine — otherwise they won’t

Make It Safe to Fail

Goal: Let overachievers know that failure isn’t
the end of the world.

Overachievers love taking risks — and often reach for
unrealistic goals. Given their mindset, they hate to fail. But many do, simply
because they’ve set their sights too high. Any setback can make them
feel inferior. Intelligent managers should help employees accept failure, not
punish people for it. Here are a few ways to help reinforce this message:

Recognize learning experiences. IBM uses mentoring
programs to teach overachievers the value of failure and how to learn from
mistakes. Elizabeth Smith, general manager of IBM Global
Technology Services, says this training served her well when a program
she designed failed to achieve positive results in Asia. In the past she might
have tossed out her hard work in frustration, but thanks to IBM’s
supportive environment, she was able to make a few minor modifications and successfully
launch the program in the United States.

Build on their wealth of ideas. Never tell an overachiever
(or anyone else, for that matter) that their ideas are bad or unrealistic.
Overachievers are especially sensitive to criticism, and one harsh remark could
shut down their creativity for good. Besides, many times “bad”
ideas tossed around during planning or brainstorming sessions lead to
successful projects. Salvation Army CIO Clarence White specifically hired two
overachievers because they thought in different ways. The first one often came
up with quixotic ideas that the second one turned into brilliant initiatives.

Reinforce confidence. When
overachievers do fail, their confidence will take a beating. Remind them of
their strengths and get them back in the saddle. Quigley of Clearstone
funded a Web portal in 1998 that allowed companies to search for online
advertising space in target markets. By late 2000 the company had shut down
because the Internet ad market took a dive. Quigley helped place the CEO into
another company. His assistance reinforced the CEO’s confidence in his
own ability and allowed him to successfully lead a new company.

Danger! Danger! Danger!

Beware of Burnout

Overachievers are at high risk for burnout. It’s
easy for them to lose track of time when working — a state of mind some
call “the flow.” It’s like a dream state for the
worker wholly absorbed in a task, but it can become a nightmare for everyone
when it turns into 12-hour work days. “Remind them it’s 8
p.m., they began work 12 hours earlier, and they accomplished a lot,” Kosak
of Lycos says. “Tell them to wrap it up and finish the task at hand
tomorrow.” If they don’t leave, you may need to lay out
ground rules and invoke company policy, which usually limits the amount of time
employees can spend in the building.

Turn Overachievers into Team Players

Goal: Help overachievers fit into the team and

Overachievers typically prefer to work alone to prevent getting
bogged down (and sometimes to keep the kudos for themselves). Other employees also
may prefer it that way if the overachiever is hypercritical or impatient. But
there are times when collaborating is essential. Here are a few strategies for
bridging the divide:

Teach overachievers to listen and share problem solving. “Overachievers
tend to be aloof,” says Roger Matus, co-founder and CEO of InBoxer. “When
you don’t know them, they could appear threatening at first.”
Matus recommends building alliances by bringing together an overachiever and
another employee to solve a problem. Sit down with both employees and have each
ask the other how he or she would solve the problem. Sharing techniques will help
build respect: Overachievers learn that other team members can have good ideas,
and other employees appreciate the chance to be heard.

Pair coworkers who complement each other. Overachievers
aren’t perfect at everything they do — most usually have an
area of great strength that overshadows another area of weakness. By pairing people
well, you help them overcome those weaknesses. Even mavericks who like working solo
will notice that their work improves with the right match. For example, when the
Salvation Army needed to improve the quality of data collected from its
locations across the country, White paired two overachievers on his team to
solve the problem: an idea person and a details person. The more conceptual
thinker came up with the idea of soliciting data with a questionnaire rather
than just asking for numbers on a spreadsheet. The employee who executes
directions well took the idea and finished writing the software program before
deadline and within budget.

Develop a coaching culture. One method to get an
overachiever to participate in a group setting is to ask him or her to mentor
or coach another employee and provide ongoing feedback. “Help them
become part of the process,” May suggests. “They have a lot
to offer and love to be the center of attention, so use it to your advantage
and get them to mentor someone else.” Set guidelines that emphasize
positive reinforcement to keep overachievers from becoming too critical.

Nitty Gritty

Setting Up a Mentoring Program

IBM’s Top Talent Mentoring Program provides one-on-one
coaching for employees who demonstrate the potential to become leaders. The
company pairs a manager or executive within the company with an employee to
learn their goals and identify opportunities for advancement. Then the
executive provides regular feedback to help fine-tune skills such as leadership

To identify employees who have the potential to step into
leadership roles, IBM’s Smith says she looks for sustained high
performance, keen self-awareness, and positive role-model attributes. Then she
matches those employees with executives who share their interests or have jobs
they’re aiming toward. In addition to sage advice, mentoring gives
the overachiever a chance to learn his own value. “Overachievers look
for how they connect and how they are recognized for making a difference,”
Smith says. “Taking the time to help them understand their current
value, and how that ties in with the company’s strategy, gives them a
sense of future job opportunities.”

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