The Three Flavors of Employees

21 May, 2014

By Kim Seeling Smith

Inside This Article

Identify and classify employees to ensure success for them and for the company.

Mike was the CFO of a large manufacturing company in Texas. He was an outstanding executive and he accepted this position because it suited his strengths to a tee. The company was looking for a very strategic head of finance who could work in partnership with the company’s CEO to take market share in existing markets, enter new markets and diversify their product line. 

When Mike started his new job he quickly realized that there was a huge problem. The way the department was set up he had to spend all of his time looking at the past instead of working with the CEO to plan the future. He also found himself working 70-to-80 hours per week.

Mike knew this was unsustainable for several reasons. He was not using his talents and would eventually become disengaged and frustrated. He was also not doing what he was hired to do, which would quickly become a source of irritation to the CEO and detrimental to the company as a whole.


Kim Seeling Smith

Mike had identified the “flavors” of his employees.

Like a workplace Neapolitan ice cream, employees typically come in three distinct flavors: your critical people, the squeaky wheels and the fat middle. Most managers and supervisors either attempt to manage every employee from each of these groups in the same manner.  Or worse, they spend the majority of time with their squeaky wheels — rewarding bad performance or behavior.  Either results in a loss of productivity and engagement, and inevitably, an unfulfilled and unhappy staff — and frustrated and time-poor manager. When you recognize the flavor of the individual employee, and prioritize your time accordingly, you position them for the highest potential for success — for themselves and for the company.

Critical People

These can be obvious — the real superstars who consistently under-promise and over-deliver, but they can also be not-so-obvious, those quiet achievers or steady eddies. They may never be superstars; in fact, they may be barely above mediocre — but they are consistent and reliable. They may also be those staff members who hold important intellectual property or jobs no one else wants to do. They may have great customer relationships or know a lot about the organization itself. In any case, you don’t want to lose them. You should prioritize your time so that 80 percent of it is spent dedicated to these people for three main reasons:

·         Allowing them to mentor with and learn from you will help them grow and develop in their own career.

·         If you don’t give them the time and attention they deserve (and may crave), they may not understand how important they actually are, which can lead to frustration, hurt feelings and even a sense that they aren’t appreciated. The number of people who walk into recruiters’ offices looking for a new role because they didn’t feel appreciated by their boss is astonishing — and easily avoided. 

·         The third reason was discovered by the Gallup Organization. Their research shows that if managers spent 80 percent of their time with the top 10-to- 20 percent of their staff they would become even more productive and engaged. As the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” If you empower those of your staff who really want to perform they will help you manage the others.    

By spending more time with your critical people, you will increase productivity, manage your time effectively and have more engaged staff and increase retention rates.  

The Squeaky Wheels

At the other end of the spectrum you have your squeaky wheels. It’s often said that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and perhaps that’s a good thing in a mechanic’s workshop. In a business environment however, it’s a recipe for poor management, high staff turnover and low productivity.

There are a couple of types of squeaky wheels: the high-performers who are also high-maintenance, and those who squeak because they present either a performance or a behavior issue. Spending an over-abundance of time with these employees will become problematic, and again, sends the wrong message to staff.

So what about your squeaky wheels? Should you just ignore them? Possibly — but in a business setting, a more proactive approach can be beneficial to the collective team. There are three scenarios you can utilize:

·         Hold a formal conversation to set more clear objectives or key performance indicators, and give them the necessary training required to accomplish them and hold them accountable for doing so.

·         Determine their internal motivators, or currencies of choice, and use those to inspire them to a higher level of performance or better behavior.

·         Move them on. Let them squeak on someone else’s bus.

The Fat Middle

This flavor is comprised of the remaining 60-to-70 percent of your workforce. Miraculously, when you devote the majority of time to your critical people and avoid the urge to grease the squeaky wheels, the fat middle takes care of itself. The good ones desire to feel the inclusion and attention they see managers giving to the critical people. They tend to become more engaged and to develop more quickly, especially if the manager empowers the critical people to help train, mentor and motivate the fat middle.

Within six to eight months of managing his team by their individual flavor, Mike was back working a reasonable work week and spending his time working with the CEO on strategy —exactly what he was hired to do. As an added benefit, employee retention went up as a result of the staff being deployed properly, working together much more effectively and enjoying their own jobs to a much greater extent. By identifying and classifying the types of his employees, he righted the overall course of the company.

And you can do the same with yours.

Kim Seeling Smith is an international human resources expert and author of the forthcoming book, Mind Reading for Managers: 5 FOCUSed Conversations for Greater Employee Engagement and Productivity. With Seeling Smith’s expansive knowledge of human capital practices in today’s market, she helps companies build healthy work environments and increase employee engagement and productivity in our digitally connected, globally oriented world. For more information, visit