“Hire Smart People and Challenge Them”

“Hire smart people and challenge them.” This is sage advice from Fortune Magazine’s 2020 Business Person of the Year, Elon Musk. While most would say this a “given” (duh, we all do this, don’t we?), I often see leaders struggle.


Many believe they do this. However, these same people also wonder they struggle to recruit, hire or retain good talent or question why current employees aren’t more engaged and performing better. Unfortunately, leaders have “blind spots.” Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you are appropriately challenging your smart people:


1. Have you created an environment of trust? Many employees believe they have to tell their boss what they want to hear and do not honestly tell them what they are thinking. Can your staff tell you the honest truth as opposed to what they think you want to hear? Are you completely honest about their current and potential skills? Are you willing to help teach and coach the employee as they build new skills, or do you criticize them behind their back for performing poorly? Do your employees have technical skills and expertise that you don’t have, and do you listen to them and follow their recommendations?

2. Do your employees know where they stand? Do they know their performance expectations and whether there are any gaps? If so, have you asked them about the real or perceived barriers that keep them from doing their job well? Do you eliminate barriers and get them the resources they need to do their jobs? Believe it or not, this is one of our key responsibilities as leaders, especially if we are the CEO. If an employee needs equipment, training or some accommodation, such as flexible hours, to perform their job well, our response should never be “we can’t afford it.” It is our responsibility to get them the resources they need, including creating the physical environment that fosters collaboration and creativity.

3. Do you have employees whose life challenges affect work? In today’s chaotic world, this is a systemic problem. Every day, someone has “life gets in the way of work” challenges that impede both the ability to get to and focus on work. Rather than “discipline” employees for being late because they don’t have reliable transportation or childcare, wise employers are figuring out how to implement creative strategies to help employees get the resources they need to be successful in both their work and personal lives. This pays big dividends in both recruitment and retention.

4. Are you a perfectionist that believes that you have to do everything yourself? Perfectionist leaders have difficulty delegating and then wonder why employees don’t perform well. They micromanage tasks without empowering employees to fully engage and allow their talents to inform job duties. This creates a “tragic irony.” The leader misses the fact that they are creating poor performance by not empowering employees in the first place.

5. Do you have a recognition and/or reward system that makes employees feel appreciated for their accomplishments? This is more than saying thank you, although that is important. This includes telling employees how their ideas and feedback are being used to make improvements and how their input and contributions makes a difference not just in their job, but to the customers and organization overall. This is a critical success factor in employee engagement and performance.

Challenging your smart employees will pay the most dividends in the context of solid employee engagement strategies. Your behavior as a leader sets the tone and makes all the difference in the world.


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