What is Wrong with Having Favorites?

When I lead a team at Best Buy I spent a disproportionate amount of time with top performers and hardly any with under performers. I played favorites and I am proud of it.

This is unusual because I have observed that most mangers spend their time with the weak team members because they oftentimes are the most needy and demanding.

I don’t like working with bottom performers very much. I instead like to take stand out team members and coach them to be even better. In my world the folks that perform well get more time with me.

More time with me = more development

More development = more advancement

More advancement = more development

It is a loop that will catapult a top performer even higher. This is why for so many years I developed many supervisors and managers that went on to run their own teams in their own buildings! This was my crowning achievement. I was most proud when I could help develop a leader for another building and help improve the district/territory/company.

Embarrassing to admit now, but normally I just ignored bottom performers and stopped scheduling them as frequently. I spent most my time developing people whom could actually carry the team and wanted to! I remember at Best Buy how our scheduling tool actually had the ability to automatically schedule employees more shifts if they were higher performers, but that our corporate office didn’t enable this technology because it could seem discriminatory. Instead the system automatically generated schedules regardless of performance and I would have to go in and change it around… My best performers (by revenue sold per hour) would sometimes have one shift scheduled and the other folks (low revenue sold per hour) would have 20-30 hours! Could you imagine? If I didn’t take time and go and adjust this I would not be putting forth the best possible customer service. What a tragic mistake. There needs to be a bit of ownership in the case of an employee to come to work ready to learn and to control what they can control. 

What happened to survival of the fittest?

I also remember how managers would adjust their schedules a couple days before district or territory staff was visiting their store. They would take off the folks that didn’t reflect their ideal traits and didn’t represent the store well during audits. I never did this. Sometimes it actually made my building perform worse on audits, but I felt it was a fair picture of what a customer could get from my building on any given day. I felt that faking the schedule to impress the corporate leadership meant that I cared more about them than customers. I was not going to play that game and I wanted the motivation to have the best possible team I could. If the corporate folks knew these games were being played by their stores they would schedule a lot less audits and do pop ins. Imagine that… A store that did tremendous on a scheduled audit looks completely different two days later on a Thursday morning.

So what does it take to be a top performer?

Naturally there were people with very little experience, but tremendous attitudes and work ethic and a willingness to learn. These folks were brought into the fold and quickly gained a lot of responsibility. I had no interest in taking seniority into consideration with my team. I hated it when a leader once told me that I was replaceable and said, “You are only as good to me as what you did for me today!” But overtime I absorbed a similar leadership style. 

I remember a gentleman I hired named Charlie. I immediately was drawn to him because he had a positive attitude, was willing to learn, and was constantly looking for feedback and critique. He was pleasant to be around which meant I wanted to spend more time around him. Needless to say he quickly became a top performer. Looking back I feel like I alienated these types of employees by giving them extra attention and helping them rise to the top. Because of this they would sometimes be on the receiving end of negative vibes from under performers, which didn’t make their day any easier. But you need these rockstars on your team and you need to nourish them. Having a whole team of rockstars would be nice, but oftentimes you only need a few to have a great team. Charlie no longer works for the company, but has gone on to be a top performer in his new career, no surprise there, right?

I liked working with employees who weren’t lazy, and actually had drive and motivation and wanted to be there without excuses. They did move up the ladder quicker, and to an outsider it would definitely look like favoritism and maybe it was! But it is good to remember there aren’t handouts in the real world. You can gain the same opportunities if you strive for them. I am not going to put forth more effort to develop someone than they are putting forth.

Life can be lonely at the top.

Walk with the wise and become wise. (Proverbs 13:20)

“Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults;

    whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse.

Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you;

    rebuke the wise and they will love you.

Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still;

    teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.”

Proverbs 9

All the behaviors I look for are free and can be achieved by anyone:

  1. Show up on time and occasionally be willing to stay late
  2. Have a positive attitude and leave home issues at the door
  3. Ask for feedback and take criticism well
  4. Be willing to work extra shifts, and actually answer the phone and come in when needed
  5. Put forth 100% effort

None of these traits are achievable by only a select few, but oh how few possess them! They make you an asset to your team and they make you coachable and approachable. Your team members and managers will want to spend time around you (and so will your customers) and you will get more opportunities by possessing them.

Response from Charlie:

Jumping into the top performer positive feedback loop doesn’t seem like it takes much. A small but critical decision made each day to live that day with a growth mindset, a mindset that believes a way will be found if the will is provided. This tiny inflection point is a very personal choice, one of the few decisions in our lives that’s 100% ours.

Various coworkers I’ve worked with instead chose to believe in the fixed mindset: the world happens to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. My first instinct is to try to help, I want to convince those around me to see the opportunities and find joy in challenging situations. But this is the wrong approach, I’m pushing my worldview onto someone else, trying to force them to be what I want them to be against their will.

In the workplace, it’s easy for a leader to “fix” what’s “broken” in an underperforming direct report. Fixing people may seem like a kindness, but it risks disaster by trying to change people to fit a mold, rather than accepting someone for who they are. In the end, neither side is happy with the result.

I have a great deal of respect for leaders who are willing to meet people where they stand. Often these leaders focus on developing their direct reports who are actively asking for help, maximizing the time and effectiveness of both the leader and the direct report. This begins a virtuous cycle of team improvement, and often leads to low performers either leaving of their own accord, or in the ideal outcome, they’re intrinsically lead by a growing sense of pride in their team to start working hard to contribute to the team effort.

During my retail days, I worked under James with a coworker who was widely known to be unmotivated, hard to work with and unresponsive to feedback. However, after many months of the team around him growing more cohesive and performing at higher and higher levels, his attitude suddenly did a complete turnaround almost overnight. He went from being a source of customer complaints and problems to one of the stronger team members, even years later.

I believe lasting changes to someone’s attitude is only possible when they decide of their own free will. Build top performers as examples, and let time and team spirit help plant the seeds of growth.

From James: Thank you Charlie for sharing this fantastic point of view!

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