If you work for any fast-growing tech company, you know that things are in a constant state of iteration. This is an amazing thing to witness and be a part of. If you are in the right mindset, you can grow and develop yourself personally and professionally quicker in these environments than in almost any other professional environment.
You get to wear a lot of hats, which forces you to furiously research new concepts because you said “yes” to something you probably had no business saying “yes” to — and now you have to become an expert in it. It doesn’t matter whether you are a leader or an individual contributor, these opportunities are all around you.
In my time starting or growing various teams, there is one constant that I can always rely on to be there: change. One of my favorite things when building teams is seeing new team members come in, hit their stride, and shake things up. Out of the dozen or so teams that I have had the opportunity to lead, there has always been a “unicorn” that emerged on each team.
The unicorn on the team is the employee who just seems to effortlessly and continuously blow past any performance expectations that you have. The impact of this is that it demonstrates to the team that the boundaries have been pushed and there is more that can be done. These experiences push everyone to level-up.
This happened recently on one of the teams that I lead. It was one of those teams where I was “building the bike while riding it” and it was so much fun. After a year or so of building the team, things were finally to the point where everyone knew what they were doing and the team was pretty unified when it came to performance.
From a data perspective, we could see a common level of performance from everyone on the team so we used that as the benchmark. We hired 2 new team members and right out of the gate one of them started doubling the performance numbers of the rest of the team. As a leader, this kind of shake-up is always welcome and it honestly blew the team away.
When one of these unicorns appears on your team, there are two paths you can take as a leader:
- You can let the unicorn soar and outperform the rest of the team, month after month
- Or you can help the unicorn lead and establish new best practices to share with their peers
#2 is one of the methods of multiplying the talent on your team.
I have done this many times on a lot of different teams. It is something that can be done in a lot of different contexts but can be applied to all levels of leadership and to an individual contributor role. In this post, I’ll share some steps I take to collaborate with top performers and establish best practices.
The steps are:
- Discover what the top performer does differently
- Document your top performer’s best practices
- Shop new best practices around
- Communicate new best practices to your team
- Coach to the new best practices
1. Discover what the top performer does differently
The tricky part is that when you sit a lot of the “unicorns” down in a 1-on-1 and you ask them what they are doing differently from their teammates, they will tell you that they are not doing anything special.
This is probably true — sometimes these things are inherent to who they are, their past experience or just plain muscle memory. To them, they are just doing their job. But you still need to find out how they do their job.
2. Document your top performer’s best practices
If your top performers are open to it, give them a task to document their day so you can get an idea of what they are doing. This includes their daily workflow as well as the steps they take to complete each task.
Have them document each decision they make throughout the day, even if they think it is mundane or obvious. Have them list any software, extensions, or productivity tools they might use. I promise that you will discover the secret sauce if you have them do this exercise for a day or even a week. Make sure they write it all down and so you can combine them with any currently documented best practices. If you don’t have any best practices currently documented, now is the time to start.
3. Shop new best practices around
Now that you have used your findings to create a new best practice or iterate on an existing one, it is time to get some feedback and buy-in from your team. My rule of thumb when it comes to best practices to take it to the team for any feedback or additions when it’s 80% baked.
I typically shop the new best practice around to some of the team members in 1-on-1 to get their input. They might have suggestions on things to add. By the time you are done getting some feedback on it, you will be 100% there and you will have a new lever available for each member of the team to integrate into their day-to-day.
4. Communicate new best practices to your team
Once the new best practice is all polished, I typically use a segment of a team meeting to roll it out as the new best practice. By this time it’s not a surprise to anyone on the team and they see some of their feedback and contributions. I usually give the “unicorn” the opportunity for peer leadership by encouraging them to present it to the team.
5. Coach to the new best practices
Evolving best practices can be tricky when everyone is used to doing something a certain way. At the end of the day, it is a behavior change, which takes some time and repetition. It’s important to check in with the team members to see how it is going so that everyone stays accountable and can share any feedback.
I try and look for ways to recognize and highlight when I see the behavior and the results because the “ah-ha!” adoption moments do not typically come until the needle starts to move.
Conclusion: Best practices make everyone better
Having documented best practices is a crucial part of my experience in growing teams — but having your top performers lead in the creation of the best practices will take your team’s performance to the next level. The best practices will continue to evolve and change, especially as you build or scale a team.