“Well, of course, they do!”
I can almost hear you thinking this. Or maybe you’re even mumbling it under your breath. But even if generating high output is an obvious characteristic, there is a bit more to it beneath the surface.
What I mean by “Generating High Output.”
High output is at least partially about quantity. In general, more is of higher value to a boss than less. And, truth be told, most bosses aren’t that particular about how an employee manages to deliver the quantity – whether through long hours, clever delegation, or taking it home and having their spouse do it. In my experience, a high output employee can get much more done than the average person. Sometimes by a factor of two or three. In a few jobs, by a factor of ten!
I’ve had a couple of amazing IT specialists working for me (specifically, code writers) that could run circles around everyone else. They worked faster, smarter, and harder than their peers, and the effort was plainly obvious in the results.
A highly productive employee reduces cost and also sets a great example for their peers. And they tend to complain a lot less, as well! Ever hear the expression, “if you need something done, give it to a busy person?” That’s because a high output employee is typically a powerhouse of productivity, and when challenged, they seem to be able to summon up resource reserves that the average employee simply can’t seem to tap.
Most bosses have a “go to” person that they look to when something absolutely has to be completed by a particular (usually tight) time. That person is almost always their highest output resource.
Quantity AND Quality
But “high output” isn’t just about quantity, it’s also about quality – the right quality. A truly high output employee understands the balance between speed and error free production – and often (but not always) the boss is willing to accept something less than “perfect” in order to simply get more, faster.
For example, I once managed a group of subordinates that included two specialists – one in accounting and the other in production supervision. While both of the incumbents were good at their jobs, I eventually realized that, to a degree, neither position was particularly taxing. When I had the opportunity to combine both jobs into a single position, I jumped at it, realizing that with the right employee, I could get a “twofer.” With that came an understanding that I might need to make a few compromises when it came to quality – and I was perfectly willing to accept that! All the high output employee needed to grasp was that accuracy was much more important in the accounting part of the function, and mistakes were much easier to tolerate on the production supervision side. Once he had this rubric down, I had nearly the same output as before but at a substantially lower cost. And as a side benefit, this high output employee gained greater insight into the overall strategy and inner workings of the business because of the breadth of the assignment and became even more valuable through keen insight and better prioritization.
That’s what I call a big win for the boss.
In the Eye of the Beholder
Measuring employee “output” is often a very subjective thing. Certainly, high output means that said subordinate “gets a lot done,” but the impact of the work often has more bearing on how the employee is seen as the raw quantity. Employees should consider the value of their output to their supervisor rather than simply relying on purely objective measures when trying to gauge their value.
Much of my time managing managers, I had administrative support from either an assistant or a secretary. In general, the output of my secretary was worth less to me than that of my higher-level subordinate managers. Rolling out that new pricing program, for example, was vastly more important – and a much bigger task – than getting a memo typed, or making travel reservations (although the error-free execution of the latter task could be critical when I was tired and arrived at a hotel where the reservation hadn’t been made.)
One of my secretaries, however, was able to find a way to move her contribution way up the ladder. She did this by developing relationships throughout the organization and using these to supply me with “backchannel” information about what was going on – information I might have otherwise missed. This contributed strongly to her being seen as a star performer. I didn’t care at all if she could type 200 words a minute, or if she could update a mailing list in an hour. What made her “high output,” at least as far as I was concerned, was her ability to identify what was important to me and provide it. As you can probably guess, I never had cause to criticize her output in the more traditional support areas, either.
So what does the Beholder Value?
Sadly, the answer to this and similar questions is, “It depends.” To make the most of one’s contribution, the employee needs to understand the supervisor. Some bosses care about “looking good” in front of their boss. Others are more worried about the short-term bottom line. Still, others concern themselves first and foremost with the long-term competitiveness of the company. Or the survival of their own department. While a high output employee might get lucky and find their contributions perfectly lining up with their boss’s fondest wishes, the smarter one spends time exploring what the boss wants and making sure most of her effort goes toward providing it.
One of my early bosses measured his department’s success in terms of the number of new patents granted each year. It took me a while to understand this – I was initially much more wrapped up in trying to measure the long-term success of new products I actually put into production. Eventually, I realized that my boss regularly had to justify the department’s continued existence to his superiors, and patents were something that could be easily tracked and reported. That helped me become a much more valuable subordinate and up my output in the process!
Can you take it too far?
Undoubtedly the high output employee is sometimes the victim of being overworked. Bosses tend to continue to pile tasks onto their “go-to” person until they either complain or important items begin slipping through the cracks. There is definitely an impact on the employee’s personal life – particularly when the heat is on – and the levels of stress in the high output employee’s life are undoubtedly higher than average. Balancing the desire to be a star employee against the costs in other parts of one’s life is something that needs to be consciously and deliberately done. Eventually, you will likely be called upon to draw a line that defines when your boss is crossing into forbidden territory by demanding too much.
How that is communicated to the boss, however, can be a delicate matter. Walk into the boss’s office in a rage and demand that jobs be reallocated more “fairly” (yes, this actually happened to me once) is likely to erase a lot of the positive opinion the boss has about you. It is much better to show her that you are nearing the “full line” by missing the occasional deadline, being a bit short tempered, or talking in a roundabout way about how all the hours spent working are impacting your life. Whatever you do, try to avoid complaining (which will likely be seen more as whining than exposing a legitimate issue).
Yes, sometimes it is all in the way you package it.
One other issue that can come up when an employee becomes the “go to” resource is becoming irreplaceable. Management experience and formal education tell supervisors that everyone in an organization can be replaced, but in practice, some still try to hold onto their best resources even to the detriment of that subordinate.
I had this happen to me once, early in my career. In that situation, I was a high output employee working in a product development job and had applied to become a product manager. Behind the scenes, my boss convinced those recruiting for the position that I was more valuable to the company in my current role and that they shouldn’t even interview me. Of course, I discovered this, and it wasn’t long afterward that I took the decision out of my boss’s hands by going back to graduate school.
Bosses are well advised to nurture and develop their high output employees, and not have sticky fingers when opportunities arise for them outside of the boss’s domain. When they do this, they develop the reputation as a people developer and successful career manager, and new, high-output employees will flock to their door.
Alas, not all bosses are so farsighted. If you suspect your boss has developed “sticky fingers” when it comes to your opportunities outside her area of responsibility, you owe it to the boss to have a frank conversation on the subject. If talking fails to change the dynamic, you should be prepared to take the decision out of the boss’s hands one way or another.
In boss speak, we often hear of subordinates referred to as a “go to” resource. While that label includes a few different characteristics, in my experience it references the employee’s high output more than anything else. If you want to become the apple of your boss’s eye, there is no more important behavior to exhibit. And yes, you will likely be taken advantage of to a degree, which is a sure sign you’re making the desired impression. To protect your sanity (not to mention your personal life) be prepared to show your boss when the quantity of work she’s assigned has passed the acceptable level. And remember, no whining!