LeBron James. Bill Gates. Warren Buffett. Everyone knows who these individuals are because they are uniquely talented at what they do. They are some of the superstars in our society, and they receive a lot of attention (and money) for being extremely athletic, talented, and/or smart. But there are many other individuals out there who have similar gifts, and with a little help, they could be outstanding performers, too.

That’s what author Malcolm Gladwell focused on in his keynote speech at the Mechanical Contractors of America Association (MCAA) convention in San Antonio. He observed that our society has always celebrated the strongest amongst us, especially when it comes to athletes, employees, and institutions. As he noted, sports teams regularly try to hire all-star players for outrageous salaries, and philanthropists often donate large sums of money to well-known universities, like Harvard and Columbia, rather than smaller, lesser known colleges. But he contends that this is the wrong way to think, especially in this day and age when companies are struggling to attract and retain skilled labor.

Gladwell noted that we have grown up on the assumption that a team is only as good as its weakest link, yet we spend very little time improving that weak link.

“Most athletic teams want to find one all-star player and pay them $40 million a year,” he said. “That’s not the way to get better. The way to get better is to take that $40 million and divide it up and get four or five pretty good players rather than one really great player. But we are a country, we are an economy, we are organizations that grew up on the assumption that we’re only as good as our best player. That is no longer true.”

For companies, that means instead of trying to recruit (or poach) one all-star employee, perhaps the time and resources would be better spent on improving the current four or five really good workers who may just need a little help getting to a higher level of performance. As Gladwell noted, the preferred strategy for all companies should be to take people who have deficiencies and make them better.

“Take a look at the most successful long-term organizations, and that’s what they do,” he said.

But many companies have a tendency to rely on a few all-star employees to keep the business running, said Dr. Chip Valutis, who owns the consulting firm, Valutis, in Williamsville, New York, and who also spoke at the MCAA conference. This “superhero growth model” is usually not sustainable, though, said Valutis, because those key individuals can get tired, burned out, and eventually become resentful. Or, they may decide to become competitors.

Instead of relying on one or two superheroes, Valutis suggests taking the time to really look at your employees and rank them — A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 — by how well they do their jobs. The A employees are usually the hard workers who propel the company forward; the B employees do what they are told and maintain the status quo; and the C employees drag down the performance of the team. As the weakest links, the C employees usually need the most help.

Consider spending some time with your C employees to see how you can help them become stronger workers. A good way to do this is to sit down with them and ask them why they want to stay with your company. What do they want from you? What kind of a career do they envision? What’s important to them? Valutis calls this conducting a “stay” interview.

After that, come up with a plan that will start pushing the employee to do a little bit more. This can include assigning additional work or increasing the scope or complexity of the tasks they already do. Be sure to offer the proper training that can help them succeed.

Of course, not every weak link will respond positively to these measures, but given the shortage of skilled workers, it can’t hurt to try. It costs a lot more to hire a new employee than to retain one, so making an effort with the weakest members of the team is worth the effort. Who knows, they may turn out to be some of the strongest links in your company.

Publication date: 6/4/2018

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