Who wouldn't like (more) high performers in their team(s)? The ones who consistently and relentlessly kill every type of work assignment. Difference-makers who set an example for everyone else and sometimes drag half of the team on their backs towards a goal (if needed). Of course, everyone would.

Unfortunately, such individuals do not always come with a credible certificate of awesomeness on display. You need to identify them at an early stage before your competition (or anyone else with an awareness better than yours) snitches them away. Then, you must provide them with proper conditions to flourish, utilizing their strengths and compensating for their weak spots. It's easier said than done, as natural-born high-performers come in different flavors.

What "flavors" precisely? Fortunately, the top-performer "segmentation framework" doesn't have to be complex. My favorite one comes from Claire Hughes Johnson's recent book, "Scaling People". In one of the chapters, the author introduces two categories of high-performers: pushers and pullers.

Who are pushers/pullers?

Pushers are the (very vocal) advocates of the highest standards. They are intense in influencing ("pushing") others to achieve more, do better, and improve whatever they find subpar. Their attitude is to continuously raise the bar (or, in the worst case, ensure it doesn't drop even an inch). And yes, they can be genuinely relentless about it.

On the other hand, pullers attract work like magnets. In many cases, they don't simply volunteer but "just do it." This work magnetism has several root causes: pullers don't allow high-impact work to be even slightly delayed, they don't mind taking accountability for high-risk work, and (last but not least) - their sense of duty is much higher than an average.

Assuming you've also observed and acknowledged this duality, you've probably got a set of questions already at hand:

  1. What are the practical differences between these groups (how they operate, add value, impact the culture, etc.)?
  2. Which of these groups is better (more beneficial)?
  3. Is it possible to "convert" people between these groups? (turn a puller into a pusher or vice versa)
  4. How can we identify/recruit people who belong to these groups?
  5. Ultimately, how should one manage these groups for the greater good (do they require different treatment/strategies to do their respective best)?

My approach is straightforward: both groups are helpful and have strengths and associated risks. These are also typically 100% driven by individuals' personalities, so sculpting them according to your preferences is hard. Instead of forcing people to change their natural mindsets, I'd instead focus on how to release their full potential and ensure they are all adequately recognized and rewarded. Needless to say, the methods for both groups differ.

Managing pushers/pullers

Pushers are proactive and eager to scale out via multiple people/teams. That's great, but it could become distracting or even toxic without a structured framework (that sets up reasonable boundaries). That is especially true if pushers excel at escalating and complaining while not being able to propose (and execute) an effective solution. The main goal of such a structured framework is to define the autonomy of the pushers — where their interference is in need and demand and where it's a rant and energy drain.

What are the key elements of such a framework? For example, a decision-making protocol (+accompanying communication policies), inspection/governance mechanism, and explicit accountability division.

Pullers can be life-saviors and role models who lead by example until they become knowledge silos or water down their effectiveness by bloating their daily agenda beyond recognition. To bloom, they need a safety mechanism that prevents them from becoming individual bottlenecks or silent martyrs prone to accelerated burn-out. Especially if the organization struggles with prioritization and everything seems critical and urgent.

What are the key elements of such a mechanism? Visualized work assignments (visible to everyone), enforced WIP limits, and obligatory peer-review/co-piloting routines are all decent examples.

Who's more valuable?

In reality, faced by most tech organizations, no one can afford to give up one of these categories entirely. Top-performer material is too rare, too hard to "cultivate", and the potential outcome is too valuable to ignore. IMHO, every STL (Senior Technical Leader) should ensure they can utilize both groups, even if it means adjusting the organizational structure.

Yes, I mean it: sometimes, you should change your organization's "operational system" because of a few individuals who can make a disproportionally high impact.

Scouting future pushers/pullers

How do you tell that someone is a great pusher/puller material? Actually, it's not that hard to notice if you know what to pay attention to.

Future pusher stars have a visible talent for "selling" their ideas. They are good at framing problems and breaking them down:

  • analyzing risks/impact/consequences
  • coming up with remediation ideas
  • preparing feasible plans & challenging their execution

Talented pushers are also masters of inspection - they pay attention to details and are hard to bullshit. Their truth is absolute & not negotiable, even if it makes others uncomfortable.

Puller-in-development is even easier to spot (if you have direct touch points with them). Things keep "happening" around them. Their success ratio is unnaturally high (even if people stopped paying attention due to the consistency). Others want to work in their teams, as nothing attracts as much as the aura of success. They are the ones who say, "I've already done it," when someone remembers a critical, overlooked gap. Puller-rookies don't have visible issues with handling distractions and easily succumb to the blessed state of "flow."

P.S. Fun fact: yes, some people belong to both of these groups (simultaneously). Such individuals combine acting as a battering ram that crushes every challenge ahead with a relentless persuasion/education/control crusade in defense of the highest standards. That obviously requires an incredible amount of energy, tenacity, and perseverance, which makes such profiles even more valuable, especially at the early stages of the organization's growth.

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