Engage, reward your top performers before it’s too late

You may not be familiar with the Pareto Principle by name, but most everyone in business has heard about it in theory or practice.

The Pareto Principle is the 80/20 rule which states that about 80 percent of the effort is done by 20 percent of the people.

It also can mean that 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your clients, or 80 percent of your creative work as an organization originates with 20 percent of your staff.

There is truth to this in many areas of life. Thanks to the late English physicist Derek de Solla Price, we can put a number to this trend and apply it to workforce talent.

According to Price’s square root law, the square root of the total number in a domain does half the work.

If you have nine employees, three do half the work, the other six do the other half. If you have 100 employees, 10 do half the work, and 90 do the other half, and so on.

The math works out that as the number of people in your organization grows, the number of those doing the work grows exponentially, while the number of high achievers grows linearly.

As an organization grows, so do the number of employees who are carried by those who do the lion’s share of the work.


There are a few things to consider:

<First, top performers may not always be top performers all of the time. They may fall back and others will do more work, but the general number of high performers will remain the same.

<Second, most organizations may not know the identity of their top performers. In most cases, these top performers do know themselves, and their peers and those who work alongside them know, as well.

<Finally, when organizations grow through change and are beset with struggles, the very highest performing of these top employees, roughly the top 1 percent, often are the first to leave on their own. When they leave, the company has fewer high performers remaining until eventually the company becomes a stagnant, failing organization.


After the top performers leave, most employees get stuck in their middling niche and do not move. There is no redistribution of talent.

These tasks do not get picked up by those left behind, and the problem is compounded.

It can happen fast. Generally, organizations that are at the top of their industry only stay there for 30 years.


Even Fortune 500 companies see this problem. Sears, Kmart and Kodak were all at the top of their industries but eventually hit hard times.

Before them, we saw companies such as Woolworth fail.

What began as some turmoil at the organization was compounded by the loss of key talent and ended in a company’s death spiral.


It is vitally important to engage high performers. Develop metrics to measure their success, retain them and advance their skills to be future leaders of the organization.

An organization needs to work to address these people, and here’s how:

<Create clear pathways and incentives – Once you have identified high performers, provide them with an avenue for growth within the organization. Work with them to quantify their career goals and provide an avenue to meet those goals.

Provide a clear path to where they want to grow and provide the means to get there through education, on-the-job training and mentoring. Along the way, provide incentives, such as bonuses, pay raises and promotions, to give them something for which to strive.

<Provide recognition – Nothing irks high-performing engaged employees more than being unrecognized for hard work and accomplishments. Do not wait until annual evaluations to do this. Provide recognition as needed.

This can be as simple as a handwritten note from the CEO, a preferred parking spot or an extra off-day. These don’t have to cost anything, but mean the world to the employee.

<Entertain them – High-performing employees often are driven by a sense of duty or curiosity.

Provide them with a means to satisfy that drive by giving them challenging and fun assignments. Assign to them duties that recognize them and are high profile. That is a good reward.

<Listen to them – Organizations are awash with stories that can help gauge the overall organizational health and determine weak spots and new opportunities.

Listen to your employees, especially the ones driving the work. You can find new ideas.


Over the coming decade, companies will struggle to find quality employees to fill their ranks.

The problem will be compounded if management does not address high performers.

Failing to engage and reward them will make the job of filling a company’s ranks that much harder and make it more difficult to compete in the 21st century business environment.

Tom Bux is director of the Center for Leadership and Workforce Development (workforce.lccc.edu) at Lehigh Carbon Community College, Schnecksville. He can be reached at tbux@lccc.edu.

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