High Performance and 10x'ers

Posted 2019-05-01 by Alex Lennon
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The 10x employee has become something of an urban myth in start-up land. People speak of them in whispers, or shout from the rooftops that they’ve found one. Do they really exist?

The term 10x’er originated in Silicon Valley, usually referring to a Software Engineering genius that can do the work of a team single handedly, but it’s increasingly creeping into start-up language about any skill-set.

First we have to determine what high-performance looks like.

Take a Sales Account Exec as an example. They were the first Sales hire for a startup and have been instrumental in defining and growing a Sales function, process and market. They’re involved in new business, account management, technical sales demos, and they collaborate with the rest of the business to make sure the Sales process is working smoothly for the benefit of the company. They’re absolutely smashing their targets and the business will struggle to replace them.

They then interview for a role with a larger company with more aggressive goals. They suddenly find they’re behind the pace in terms of deal size, volume and frequency. They’re not being considered for the same level role and will be a cog in a wider machine, as opposed to the Leader.

Does this diminish their worth? Who decides if they’re a 10x’er or not?

Now comes the most challenging part of high-performance culture. “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity” - Oscar Levant.

In the same breath that people are claiming they’ve found a 10x’er, a lot of the time it’s followed by: “...but they’re really difficult to work with and it’s causing a lot of disruption”.

This can be for a number of reasons. Take a Software Engineer as another example. If they truly are genius level intelligence and have the highest standards of work, then everyone in the team is forever 10 steps behind them, trying to figure out if what they’re doing is even possible or going to work. A CTO at a startup I worked with once said their Lead Engineer was “like a runaway freight train. I have to trust that he’s got this right, because if the tracks are a few inches off, no-one in the team will know how to un-pick the work he’s done, including me”. This requires an enormous level of trust.

The flipside is this gap in understanding can have the adverse effect and cause distrust and friction. As the 10x Engineer has to constantly explain concepts that to them are boringly simple, but to your average Engineer are like blindfolded brain surgery. If they have the right demeanour and can articulate these concepts in a digestible format, then your team will flourish and you really are on to a winner. But if this balance is off, then it’s only a matter of time before you start seeing people leave.

The 10x employee does exist in my opinion. But defining who they are and what high-performance is, is totally subjective to your business. Sure there will be similarities in standards of work, achieving targets etc. But just because someone performed well at X company, is no guarantee they will at yours, and that’s the educated gamble you have to make with any hire. What’s right for other companies might not be right for yours. Absolutely you want the best Talent you can find. But if your systems of working aren’t set up to accommodate someone who might be brilliant in their profession, but derail your team morale and culture, is it really worth the risk?

I’ll leave you with an example in a sporting context. Whichever team or sport you follow, who are the players you remember the most? Is it the superstar that had moments of brilliance, but was constantly disruptive, and followed by controversy.

Or was it the player that was still world class, but was an ambassador for the club, galvanised the team around them and consistently delivered whatever the circumstances.

I know which one I’d pick.

Astronaut looking at phone while sitting on a ringed planet.

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