Changing the Workplace With Katie Burch: Motivating the Top 20% Instead of Policing the Other 80%

Published on August 14, 2018

Start By Treating Top Performers Like Leaders

There’s a lot floating around these days about how to motivate the workforce, identify top performers, and what to do with them once you have labeled them as such. Katie Burch, the founding partner and principal architect of PlanNorth Architectural Co., has a new approach to the constant dilemma of how, exactly, to get the most out of your employees. Specifically, the top 20 of those employees.

Speaking at the TEDxBlinnCollege conference, Burch discusses a theory she’s been building during her decades in the workplace. In her Ted Talk, she describes noticing a pattern when evaluating the employees in any job, anywhere, that she held.“There were some people that really worked harder than others,” she says. The ones who were always in the office early, who left late, and who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the chase. According to Burch, “They are hungry, smart and intrinsically motivated.”

After counting, she identified that there were 20%, on average, of these top performers in every job she’d ever had. As a self-proclaimed twenty-percenter herself, Burch could quickly and easily identify those who were motivated, as she puts it, not by the trophy, but simply by the win. Starting out at the age of 15, Burch hauled hay while working multiple part-time jobs. She climbed her way up to the top of the architectural industry until partnering to start her own firm, PlanNorth Architecture, in 2010.

There’s a Top 20%, Now What?

After seeing the trend of top performs early on in her career, a new idea began to form for Burch. The question became, then, what should employers be doing with this 20%? It turns out, not many people had the same interest in these top performers. Rather, the focus had been on how to get the other 80% to work harder. “It felt like, most of the managerial efforts were targeted at policing the 80 versus encouraging the 20,” Burch noticed.

So how do businesses find and keep these top-tier employees? Again applying the knowledge of her own story to the situation, Burch thought through what she wanted as a top 20% employee and came up with a bit of a formula. “A top 20 is a personality,” Burch says. This means catering to personal preferences more than trying to quantify performance or other standard performance evaluation techniques.

For starters, the top 20 want to see the vision for where they work. These people are invested more than the average employee and want assurances that their vision aligns with that of the company. Additionally, they need more freedom, and potentially, more fun than the other 80%. According to Burch, this freedom leads to focus. “If you can grant your top workers just a little bit of freedom to navigate this over-saturated world that we live in of demands, then they will give you total focus and bring your business success.”

This one can be especially challenging for management. For PlanNorth, this means allowing employees to dictate their start and end times, holidays, and maternity leave. “It may sound really crazy,” Burch says in closing her TEDx talk, “But it’s not crazy it’s a simple idea. Of finding the leaders that you can really trust, and just trusting them.”

Alicia Raeburn is a Former Contributor at GritDaily.

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