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Why You Should Focus On Your Second-Best Employees

Average employees can sometimes do exceptional work with a little patience and the right coaching.

Why You Should Focus On Your Second-Best Employees
[Photo: Flickr user Matt Rubens]

Managers tend to spend most of their time with their top performers, the ‘A’ players who reliably deliver strong results and are easy to manage in the first place. But what about the ‘B’ team–those who pull their weight but don’t typically go above and beyond, and who sometimes need considerable oversight on projects even a little more complex than their usual tasks?

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Like it or not, B-grade employees actually play a big part in a company’s long-term success. In fact, managers should approach at least some members of their B teams as groups of potential A players and focus most of their effort on them. Otherwise, there won’t be anyone who’s well trained to take the place of an A player if and when their work falls behind or they leave the company.

For the most part, spotting an A player is easy. They’re focused, independent, and do exceptional work. On the other hand, it can be hard to distinguish which B players have the potential to work at a higher level. Managers have their work cut out for them, but this strategy can help.

Find Potential On The ‘B’ Team

Here are some characteristics of a high-potential B player:

They execute with just a little direction. B players need guidance, but they deliver once it’s given. They complete tasks on time and at the level that’s expected. While their output might not rise above average, it’s consistently good enough and has the potential to be even better if they’re given more direction. Managers should try to better understand B players’ thought processes, even if they made a few mistakes. Were they on the right track? What tripped them up? Did they hesitate at the right moments, even if they didn’t know quite how to proceed?

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They don’t get discouraged. B players aren’t complacent. They want to know how to improve, and negative feedback doesn’t hold them down. They stay motivated and adjust in order to continue growing, even if their work doesn’t stand out at first. B players aren’t quick to ask for feedback, but they respond well to criticism and implement it quickly.

They ask the right questions. B players might not come right out and ask for a mentor, but they show a desire for more guidance–not just about their work, but about how to succeed at the company. They may want to know how a certain A player prioritizes tasks or handles clients. Managers have to pay attention and help their most curious B players grow, even if they don’t show outsize ambition at first. Over time, they’re still liable to get anxious to do more and may leave for another job.

Turning A ‘B’ Into An ‘A’

Once managers identify their high-potential B players, the second step is getting them up to A-level. Here are a few techniques:

Be honest and direct. Tell those B players exactly where they stand. Let them know they’re good, but not great–yet. Share with them that they show high potential, but there are things they need to work on. Offer concrete examples. Show them what distinguishes good from great, but be careful how you deliver this message. The point of the conversation isn’t to discourage your employee, but to help them recognize their own potential.

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Outline what comes next. Lay everything out from the get-go in your meetings with B players. Tell them it will take extra hours of work and practice in order to develop the skills that will take them to the next level. Be truthful about the obstacles but make sure they know they’ll have your guidance to help them get there–and your confidence that they can.

Pair them with a mentor. Match up high-potential B players with some of your top performers so they can learn firsthand what it takes to succeed. As a manager, you don’t need to personally coach everyone promising on your B team, but you do need to create those learning opportunities among the people you manage.

Identify their motivators. What motivates a B player may not be the same thing that motivates an A player. It’s essential that managers get to know their employees individually so they can motivate them accordingly. Maybe a promotion is actually a better incentive to improve than a flexible schedule. It all depends on a given team member’s unique combination of personality, working style, and goals. Too many employers waste money using the wrong incentives to motivate staff.

Provide structure. While B players deliver, they need a sturdy framework. They have a strong work ethic, but guidance and regular feedback are important. You may feel like you’re micromanaging, but B players won’t thrive just by being given more autonomy.

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Offer support and encouragement. Celebrating the small wins is key to helping a B player move ahead. Pushing beyond their comfort zones can be overwhelming enough even for B-team members with potential to develop. Remain accessible and be patient–not just with the questions they’ll have, but also with the time it takes them to complete a new task.

Investing in promising B players is important, but managers also have to recognize if their investments aren’t paying off. If after a month or two of this approach there’s no sign of real progress–or an interest in making progress–then restart the conversation to find out whether your B player still wants the opportunity to advance. It might have sounded exciting at first, but they could have changed their mind and decided they aren’t up for it. That’s okay. Don’t view it as a failure, and make sure your employee doesn’t either. Managers won’t know if someone really has great potential if they don’t push and challenge them.

Adam Ochstein is the founder and CEO of StratEx, a Chicago-based firm that provides human resources services and software.