Except when they don’t. These extra-milers also risk burning out, becoming a bottleneck on their teams or overshadowing co-workers who stop learning and growing, new research shows.
To keep their teams running smoothly, high achievers must prioritize demands on their time, delegate work and avoid allowing a line to form outside their cubicle or office door.
Justin Goeglein sometimes puts in 60-hour weeks and stays at the office as late as 11 p.m. to serve clients. He’s chief engineer at New Eagle Consulting, an Ann Arbor, Mich., engineering firm that makes control systems for self-driving vehicles and other products. His team juggles many projects at once, sometimes facing four or five deadlines at a time.
Clients sometimes ask specifically for Mr. Goeglein to work on their projects, and he battles a tendency to take on too much. He knows overloading himself won’t help the company grow long-term. “But if you know how to do the work, you’ll just pull it in and work longer and harder to get it done,” he says.
Stars like Mr. Goeglein pose a dilemma for managers, says Mickey Swortzel, New Eagle’s co-founder and chief financial officer. “It’s been very easy during busy times to allow the high achievers to just go, and to be very thankful for the work they’re doing,” she says.
She worries about Mr. Goeglein burning out, however. The grueling pace extra-milers like him set may also cause co-workers to decide they don’t want to rise in the ranks, or to feel their career path is blocked by high achievers who can do it all.
With Ms. Swortzel’s encouragement, Mr. Goeglein is sharing more responsibility. “I have to be willing to hand off things that can stretch the team,” he says. He also has set a goal of getting home by 5:30 p.m. every day to have dinner with his wife and three young children.
Extra-milers like Mr. Goeglein can make a staggering difference on the job. A top retail salesperson at a well-run store might sell eight times as much as an average department-store employee, and an ace software developer at Apple might write nine times as much usable code each day than the average Silicon Valley developer, says Michael Mankins, co-author of “Time, Talent and Energy.” On average, star performers are 51% more productive than others in their field, says Mr. Mankins, a partner in San Francisco with Bain & Co.
Many extra-milers provide help and constructive suggestions to colleagues, raising the overall output of their teams, says Ning Li, lead author of a 2015 study of 87 work teams. Stars who do creative work, however, tend to stifle individual co-workers, discouraging them from developing their own insights, he found in a new study of 94 sales teams and 84 R&D teams set for publication soon. “You somehow create a dependency, so that others rely on you,” says Dr. Li, an associate professor of management and organizations at the University of Iowa.
Colleagues often fight for time with a star-in-residence, creating bottlenecks that slow everyone’s work. The likelihood that extra-milers will quit rises with the share of colleagues who complain about not having enough time with them, says Rob Cross, a professor at Babson College and head of Connected Commons, a 70-employer consortium studying collaboration. When 25% or more of extra-milers’ contacts start asking for more access to them, their quit rate soars to twice levels typical for managers in comparable jobs. That conclusion is based on 360 employee interviews and 10 years of research at more than 100 companies, Mr. Cross says.
Julia Lamm, center, shown here meeting with one of the teams she oversees as a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York, has built a strong internal network so she can delegate tasks quickly and prevent logjams. Photo: Keller Grayson
Those who thrive in corporate settings often must learn new skills.
Partners, clients and colleagues vie for time with Julia Lamm, a director at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York. Some people get upset if she doesn’t give their projects as much attention as they want, says her boss Bhushan Sethi, global co-leader of the firm’s people and organization practice. “When you’re really good at something, you can disappoint people if you say no,” he says.
Ms. Lamm, a mother of two small children, recalls checking her schedule one morning after returning from maternity leave when a team member who wanted to discuss a personal issue pinged her, asking, do you have time today? “I looked at my calendar and thought, I don’t have time today,” Ms. Lamm says. She made time to see him by arranging for a colleague to cover for her while she stepped out of a meeting later that day. Since then, she has learned to knock nonessential meetings off her calendar each morning and delegate other activities to colleagues.
Mr. Sethi has helped her prioritize projects. “She’s done a good job of saying no in a polite way,” he says.
She grooms subordinates to make client presentations in her place. And she makes the most of time spent in meetings. When one manager she meets with weekly said he wasn’t getting enough of her time, she talked with him about what he actually wanted and switched the focus of their sessions away from routine status reports, toward the creative problem-solving discussions he wanted.
Most extra-milers avoid complaining about overwork, partly because they don’t want to look like whiners, says Dana Brownlee, founder of Professionalism Matters, an Atlanta corporate-training firm, and author of “The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up.” She adds, “Then, if they leave, executives are left scratching their heads, wondering how they lost their superstar.”
Some are happier running their own show. Amber Hinds chafed at a previous employer over colleagues who always headed home by 5 p.m., no matter what. She says she left meetings with long to-do lists because others were slow to volunteer for projects. Former co-workers describe her as a high achiever who sometimes butted heads with people who didn’t share her work ethic.
Ms. Hinds soon quit, and now is CEO of Road Warrior Creative, a digital marketing agency in Georgetown, Texas. As co-owner of the firm with her husband, she controls who’s on her team. “I have high expectations of myself, and my team members are high achievers too,” she says.
Advice for Office Superstars
To work smoothly with colleagues:
—Take over important projects.
—Agree to every demand on your time.
—Extend your work hours so you can do it all.
—Allow work to back up because you’re too rushed to help.
—Deprive colleagues of learning opportunities.
—Allow your ideas to eclipse everyone else’s.
—Prioritize demands on your time.
—Delegate unmanageable work to others.
—Invite co-workers’ ideas and suggestions.
—Guard against overload and burnout.
—Notice teammates’ problems and offer help.
—Help co-workers grow their careers.
Work & Family Mailbox
Q: We enjoyed your Dec. 26 column about raising a child’s intelligence, but we were disappointed that you didn’t mention one variable that has been shown repeatedly to increase lifelong intelligence: breast-feeding.—D.G.
A: Many studies have linked breast-feeding with a higher IQ in children at ages 5 or 6. A 2015 review of four high-quality studies that controlled the results for an important variable, maternal IQ, found breast-feeding improved children’s IQ scores by 1.76 points.
Most studies measuring the possible relationship between breast-feeding and IQ are correlational, however, and the topic has sparked controversy among researchers. It’s difficult to control the results for all factors that may play a role, from a child’s home environment to genetic differences in babies’ ability to digest the fatty acids in human milk that are believed to fuel IQ gains. However, experimental studies aren’t possible because researchers would have to assign mothers randomly to breast-feed or not.
One randomized experimental study of 13,889 children approached the question differently, comparing babies whose mothers participated in a hospital program to encourage breast-feeding with controls who didn’t participate. Mothers who had the training breast-fed longer, and their children had verbal IQ score gains of 7.5 points at age 6 1/2. Critics fault that study for failing to measure the impact of no breast-feeding at all.
More recently, a 2017 study of 7,478 families used methods that approximate random selection, and found no statistically significant differences in IQ among 5-year-old children who had been breast-fed. Critics of that study fault it for failing to control the results for mothers’ IQ, and say too few participants breast-fed their children long or exclusively enough to reap the maximum benefits.
Taken together, the evidence suggests breast-feeding has a small but durable impact on children’s intelligence, according to a 2017 commentary in the journal Pediatrics.
Q: My daughter, 24, has a job that involves setting appointments by phone. She has a mild to moderate stutter, and although she goes to speech therapy, she still gets stuck sometimes. On the phone, people say such things as, “Just spit it out,” or, “What is wrong with you?” This upsets her and sparks anxiety that makes the stutter worse. Can you suggest any resources?—J.A.
A: Social anxiety is very common among people who stutter. While a speech therapist can help your daughter speak more smoothly, she may benefit from seeing a behavioral therapist or psychologist to help with social anxiety, says Gerald Maguire, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California, Riverside, medical school and chairman of the National Stuttering Association. Also, a psychiatrist might recommend medications for social anxiety, he says.
Business calls can be especially tough because they often require exchanging specific information, locking the speaker into narrow word choices, says Jayne Latz, president of Corporate Speech Solutions in New York. Your daughter might try writing down what she wants to say before she makes a call, or practicing it in her head. If it’s OK with her employer, she might try telling the other person as she begins a call that she sometimes stutters, and add, “It may take me some time to get my words out. I appreciate your patience,” to gain a greater sense of control.
The National Stuttering Association’s website offers resources including a printable flier for employers.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at email@example.com