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4 tips for managers to help employees realize their potential

5 min read


Kate Matsudaira is vice president of engineering at Decide, a technology startup focused on helping consumers make smarter purchases through science and data. She has extensive experience managing software teams at some of the top software companies, such as Amazon and Microsoft.

Almost every company focuses on hiring and recruiting star employees, but it is not enough to simply hire the best. To utilize all of that “rock star” potential, you must give them the culture and environment in which to prosper.

The inspiration for this blog post stems from a recent conversation with a colleague. He confided that he had a dilemma in which his best employees were doing a lot extra work (which was good), but their efforts didn’t align with the business goals. He said to me in frustration, “If they have extra time, why can’t they just do more on their projects and assignments?”

After talking a while, it became clear he had a team of driven, ambitious employees, but there was something missing — a framework encouraging such overachievers to produce work rewarding themselves and the company. I suffered, too, from not having such a framework early in my career.

In my first job out of college, I was frustrated by my first review — I was rated as average. But I was accustomed to being above average; I could get A’s in school only by completing the homework and doing well on tests. However, in the corporate world, doing only what’s expected, even well, gets you average.

Thankfully, I had a great manager who gave me tips on being an overachiever. He told me to find things to do that were important, with a clear business impact, but not urgent or assigned to someone else, and do those in addition to my assignments. The next six months, I spent extra cycles completing projects that people indicated needed to be handled but weren’t urgent enough to be on the plan. This helped me earn a stellar review that period and every one after.

I needed guidance on how to overachieve at my job.

As a manager and leader in your organization, it is important to provide the tools employees need to overachieve at their jobs. Here are some tips to help you get there.

1. Help employees understand their strengths.

When was the last time you felt great about a project or task at work?

People feel good when they have the chance to work on things that they can complete successfully, tasks that they are good at that complement their talents. When employees are able to master their work and complete things autonomously, they derive more satisfaction in their work.

For leaders, this means getting to know individuals and developing an approach to assigning work and recognizing progress that will inspire each person to do his or her best. When you truly understand an employee’s aspirations and personal goals, you can better align them with critical business goals, achieving a synergy that benefits both sides.

2. Set clear goals.

As part of their reviews, or even as part of regular check-ins (such as one-on-one meetings, or project goals) employees should have a clear list of their goals. Each of the goals should have a clear connection to the company’s purpose and objectives.

Goals should be SMART. Every goal should be written down with a clear definition and deadline. Each goal should have a plan for success, but employees should also have the chance to define their path of execution. This empowers the employee to define and set his or her own objectives, then work toward those in a concrete and measurable way.

3. Revisit goals regularly (monthly or quarterly).

For goals to be useful, they must be monitored and tracked. Examination of failures and successes related to performance often reveals potential opportunities for employee growth. This process helps employees see you as a personal coach in their success. You need to show up at practice, too — if you show up only to games, you become the referee, someone there to keep score.

In these reviews, make sure you evaluate the employee’s progress against a predetermined set of objectives; this type of monitoring can head off trouble early.

Here are some great questions to spur conversation.

  • What went well?
  • What could have been improved?
  • How can these lessons be applied to projects or personal development objectives going forward?

Because most managers are busy, having employees write up answers to these questions before meeting makes the review more fruitful and effective.

4. Reward and recognize progress and achievements.

Positive reinforcement is a critical part of any manager’s motivational strategy. So a key component of regular goal reviews should be the recognition of notable achievements, progress and improvements. Giving praise verbally in the meeting is appropriate, but when possible, it can also be nice to do a little more. If you have the luxury and budget, small monetary or physical gifts are great ways to recognize bigger achievements.

There are many techniques to incentivize employees to go above and beyond; these are only some tips to get you started. Whatever processes you choose for your company, ensure that your employees know what exactly it means to exceed, that expectations of them are clear and that their achievements are celebrated in a way most rewarding to them. Good luck!