Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto from 1998 to 2013 and author of several impressive business books, writes in a recent Harvard Business Review piece (The 3 Simple Rules of Managing Top Talent):

The general view in business is that top-end talent is highly sensitive to and motivated by compensation and that big monetary rewards are key to their management. There is a grain of truth to this — but only a grain. In my 36-year career, I haven’t met a single person truly at the top end of the talent distribution who is highly motivated by compensation. Not one.

Sure, I’ve met lots of successful people who are highly motivated by compensation: CEOs who pump up the perceived value of their company to sell it, hedge fund managers who destroy companies for short-term gain, investment bankers who get their clients to acquire companies they shouldn’t to earn big fees, consultants who sell their clients work that they don’t need, and me-first athletes who poison their teams.

But none are the kind of top-end talent who make their organization great for a sustained period.

Martin condenses his career’s worth of experience with the question, “What Do High Performers Want?” (my words, not his) into three precepts:

  • Treat them as individuals, not members of a group
  • Provide continuous opportunity, and
  • Pat them on the back.

You might think (I admit I was tempted….) that telling senior partners or practice group leaders or members of your executive committee that being part of such an exalted group is their reward, but they actually want more; they want you to treat them as specific, distinct, unique individuals. Martin gives the example of an executive sufficiently senior to be entitled to unlimited paternity leave who asks for permission to take same and Martin replies—mistakenly, he later rues—that “sure, because you’re a Global Account Manager, at that level you can do it.” His GAM friend proceeds to walk off, “sullen.”

What gives? Didn’t the guy get exactly what he was asking for? Yes, but. Martin should have said, but did not, “of course, Rupert, if paternity leave is something important to you, by all means you have our full support.” Identical result, very different message.

Opportunity. You may have encountered this dealing with the supposedly inscrutable Millennial’s. They want to take on ever-increasing challenges, and right now, please. If you can’t satisfy that, they’re out the door. But of course, this has never been and hopefully never will be true only of Millennial’s. (I confess I switched firms as a baby associate for precisely that reason.)

Of course this isn’t a counsel of professional irresponsibility on your part. The juniors you favor with challenges have to be up to it at with some plausible degree of confidence, and you will be careful only to do it in circumstances where they’re provided a preferably-subtle safety net. But do it you had better, at peril of losing a high-performer-in-the-making to your competitor down the street.

Finally, praise and pats on the back. I have never forgotten the power of this in my own career, despite the episode I’m about to share with you having taken place over two decades ago. A more senior associate and I had just finished—with outstanding results—a months-long, complex, multifaceted matter where our client was universally acknowledged to be extremely difficult, and what did the senior partner who’d been in charge for those many months do? Told us to show up late to the office the next morning and he’d take us all to a lovely sushi restaurant. Unforgettable.

The lunch may have cost the firm $150, but it was an invaluable reward.

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