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Is It Time To Start Performance Managing Your Top Performers?

burnout coaching leadership Jul 14, 2022

“Lazy bastards don’t burn out”

I was part of a panel discussion last week talking about burnout and Lucyna Milanowska made this comment, “lazy bastards don’t burn out” and she’s right. I wrote an article years ago about who is looking after your top performers and said a similar thing, because it’s true. The ones who do the minimum, will not reach burnout.

A month or so ago I interviewed Denise Duffield-Thomas for my podcast and she’s a self-confessed lazy perfectionist, prone to burnout. When she talks about being lazy, she wants to make the biggest impact with the least amount of effort, and so she’s always looking for the quickest and easiest way to get her to her goal. We talked about the importance of boundaries, and when she pushes to hard and becomes exhausted, she’s prone to burnout, and this is a multi-millionaire with a lot of help and support, who also likes to do a number of things herself and if she overthinks and overstretches, burnout creeps back in.

In business, and from a lot of stages with business gurus and influencers there’s usually a lot of sporting analogies when we talk about performance and teamwork. And I’ll admit also being a bit of a geek when it comes to understanding the psychology of top athletes and how they keep driving and pushing.

As we know, many of the world’s top athletes get injured, get knocked out of tournaments, need recovery time, have replacement hips, knees strapped up. The top athletes, the top performers in any industry, push that little bit harder. If you’ve ever watched the world’s strongest man competition you’ll see giant’s passing out, fainting, strapping up legs and arms, faces turning beetroot as they push themselves to and often past their own limits in order to take home the title and do what many of us what never even dream of.

Many athletes know that if they want to be the best, and in the top 1% then they need to go beyond what they thought was their 100%, constantly, in order to lift a bit more weight, be that extra second faster and have 1% more power in their shots.

And the top performers in your business will likely be doing the same in order to complete that project 1% faster, get 1% more done, be 1% more productive and be at the top of their game.

At the weekend I watched Conor McGregor: Notorious on Netflix. If you’re not familiar, McGregor is an world champion, Irish, MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) Fighter, where they basically get into a hexagonal ring and use any training and skills necessary to hit, kick, wrestle and punch each other until your opponent taps out, is knocked out, or you win on points, it’s brutal.

Notorious shows his journey, with a snippet at the end highlighting his first attempt at boxing against Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, which he lost, but fought well in, and won a lot of money in the process. In the documentary you see him ready to win a title fight again a 10 year, undefeated opponent, José Aldo. And in the lead up to the fight, José Aldo sustains a rib injury a few weeks before the fight, and unable to fight, pulls out. What the documentary also shows is that Conor McGregor had torn 80% of his ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament, the ligaments inside the knee that joins to the thigh bone) 14 weeks before the fight, but still kept training. And whilst his family and friends mention in the documentary that many people wouldn’t even be able to walk with his injury, let alone train, he overcame the pain and the injury to fight a different competitor on the date set for the Aldo fight, and won.  But McGregor admits after the fight that he was more frustrated that Aldo had pulled out because of his injury when McGregor had continued to train in preparation for the fight regardless of his injury.

And the sad reality is that most leaders don’t want Aldo’s, who pull out, who give into pain and injury, they want McGregors, the ones that will keep pushing through, showing up, working harder, overcoming challenges, even when they shouldn’t.

One thing that the top athletes have that many top performers don’t, is a real support team around them. The top athletes have trainers, coaches, physios, therapists, nutritionists and more, and yet in business, many of our top performers are just left to get on with it, and often we don’t even allow them to work with a coach, unless of course they’ve been assigned the title of high potential or high performer as part of a programme that includes coaching. A lot of the time we just leave them to it, because they’re performing, often over-performing, and they are helping the organisation to achieve what it needs to achieve.

If you don’t support your top performers and make them feel valued and appreciated, they’ll become ill, they’ll leave, or they’ll become ill and then leave. If you really want your top performers to stay with you, you need to be building them a support team, co-creating a support team around them. Letting them select their coaches, letting them identify what help they need, and if they don’t know, then help them.

Many of the top performers that I coach, literally refuse to ask for help, because the shame of ‘people will think I’m a failure’ is overwhelming. It’s also been said to me, by many clients, that ‘having a broken leg would be easier because then people would see I needed time out’.

I have seen, and worked with top performers that have fallen down on the stairs with a heart attack, or collapse through anxiety attacks, people who have broken down in toilets and can’t up from the floor, people who have had strokes, been diagnosed with ME and MS, diabetes, cardio myopathy, severe anxiety, depression, suicide, dying in their sleep whilst away on leadership residentials, a complete nervous breakdown, numerous hospital admittances, burnout and more – and the signs were there, and they ignored them all, because the shame of asking for help, or making changes, would have ‘proven’ that they weren’t good enough, and that shame is too much for them to shoulder, so they would quite literally, rather be ill and in hospital so that they have a ‘reason’ to be ill, before they will ask for help.

And I’ve been there.

I used to measure my energy levels and my illness by whether I could still work. If I could still get out of bed and get to work, I wasn’t that ill. I was a McGregor, fighting on, despite the pain, unable to stand, or walk, but I was able to keep on going.

And here’s the thing. I’ve always been a top performer. I was moved up a year at school, I was the only trainee when I started my corporate career to receive a promotion and pay rise every six months when we’d been told we would only get them at the end of our two-year training. After I had my sons and transferred to a different side of the business I was given two years to get to know the business and get m next promotion, I did it in five months. Over an 8-year period I had 7 promotions and added £100,000 to my salary. I was appointed as the UK’s youngest HRD at 30 in an organisation with over 3500 people, I’m sure someone will have beaten that now.

I don’t want to or need to be the best, I just need to know I have done my best. If I’ve given my all and come first in a race, then I gave it my all. If I’ve not given my best and come first in a race, I’ll be thinking about why I wasn’t even faster and what I need to improve for next time to beat my score instead of celebrating the win.

Every single Psychometric that I’ve completed over the last 22 years will say ‘this personality type is prone to stress’. Is it hard-wired in me, or did I learn this? Either way, I will push, I will strive for excellence, I want perfection, my default when I’m stressed or not looking after myself or implementing my boundaries is always ‘what will people think’ (shame), and this keeps me pushing harder.

Even at my Power Up a few weeks ago, I had a number of people who didn’t show up on the day and three people message me the night before to say they couldn’t make it because of work commitments, and I spent all night thinking ‘everyone in the room will think I’ve failed’. What I needed to and did change my thinking to was the fact that everyone in the room would have the best experience ever, because the reality is, the day wasn’t about me, it was about everyone who was there.

Your top performers will keep on pushing, and if you give them a deadline to complete something in 24 hours, it will be done in 22, often at the detriment of their personal life, sleep, or wellbeing.

And the top performers will see those around them always missing deadlines, and they know that the people always missing deadlines are the ones who slow things down. So, eventually, the top performers start doing or helping the deadline missers too, and they don’t get the praise for it, because often nobody knows about it, and the deadline missers don’t give them the credit. 

But the top performers see you then starting to praise the deadline missers, because they are now doing things they’ve never done before, and you think it’s great. But the top performers, because you don’t afford them the same credit, are now feeling even more like a failure, and inside they are striving and pushing harder to be and do better. But you’ve come to expect their levels of performance, it’s just ‘who they are what they do’, and because you see how amazing they are, you start assigning them new projects, more work, more responsibility, not always with increased pay, and they push harder to keep achieving.

But, with these top performers, as their performance keeps increasing, so too does their self-doubt, fear, and shame. 

Brené Brown says that ‘when perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun’, that we struggle with perfectionism being the thing that keeps us from being seen and being hurt. Striving for excellence is not the same as perfectionism. Striving is internally focused, perfectionism is ‘what will people think’. And a lot of your top performers will be worried, a lot, about what will people think.

And when they don’t feel good enough inside, and they think they are failing, most of the time it’s just their perception right? They think ‘I’m failing’, whilst a lot of people around them are thinking ‘wow, I wish I could be more like them’ but they don’t see it. And when they don’t see it, stress and anxiety rise, and burnout and illness is waiting in the wings, because there will come a time when all of the pushing and striving and working and worrying will catch up with them.

And I think we need to understand what we mean by top performance and high potential in our organisations. As leaders, we need to redefine top performance so that it’s not about sacrificing your wellbeing in order to deliver, and it’s not about doing it all yourself and not delegating. We should be looking at high performance as those people who take breaks and rest, who delegate, who push back on unrealistic deadlines, who set boundaries, who know who they are at the core and live by their values. It shouldn’t be about killing yourself in the process.

And you know what, if you told your top performers that perfection looked like taking breaks, switching off, and setting boundaries, they would be the first to make the changes, because the shame and worry about no longer being a high performer will make them make the changes.

The need to push and be a top performer, can of course be deep-rooted, and we may not understand it all, but we can change it. And, what can be more confusing is that often top performers don’t see themselves as top performers, so you may have some work to do there too. But even if your top performers don’t realise they are top performers, unless you keep a tally somewhere to prove it to them, you will know who your top performers are, and this is where you need to lead them and guide them and support them.

Do you need to be performance managing your top performers? In a formal sense no. But you need to set the parameters with them, give them a support team, even if it’s a coach and a support team of one, because they need to feel heard, supported and able to talk about their challenges and feelings, even if they don’t know it yet.

Don’t let your top performers burn out. Let them, or help them create their support team, because when they are performing well AND looking after themselves in the process, the stuff these people can produce is amazing.


Join me on 20th July for a two-hour virtual Mind The Gap: Burnout Prevention Workshop.

From the comfort of your own home or office, join me for the next Mind The Gap - Burnout Prevention Workshop between 2pm and 4pm (UK).

 In this workshop you'll learn:

  • What Burnout Is
  • How the brain works and why you think and feel the way you do
  • My story and how I recovered from burnout
  • The 12 Stages of Burnout and how to recognise them
  • The Four Core-Ners of Wellbeing, how to recognise when you are out of alignment and what to do to get you back on track
  • My three qualifying questions for managing your energy and not your time for increased productivity and decreased stress
  • The 7 F's that create freedom from stress

Plus a Q&A

This is an interactive workshop, no death by PowerPoint

Everyone who attends will receive a free copy of the book.

Book your place now for just £99

 In 2013 Kelly had a successful leadership career, yet she was burned out, exhausted, and missing out on life with family.

Determined to enjoy the success that she had earned, she's learned to create a life of balance and boundaries that is also highly successful.

Today at, Kelly helps women leaders all over the world to prevent and recover from burnout without giving up their career or jeopardising their wellbeing.

#Burnout #BurnoutPrevention #Success #Performance


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