Conducting a High-Performing Department

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Managing a high-performing department is similar at times to conducting a small chamber orchestra.

Both contain the best players.
Both bring together an assortment of personalities.
And both are absolutely amazing when playing well together.


There are many ways to manage a high-performing department and I’m going to speak to marketing departments, since that is my area of focus, but the basics are relatable to other types as well.

I’m a believer in employing a team-based department model. A manager will “quarterback” the marketing program/product/service and then utilize the marketing functional players for a fast-moving, efficient delivery. Hiring high-performers for each of the functions ensures that we deliver the most cutting-edge programs in the industry.

So how do we get high-performers to play together on the same team? Especially when they are truly some of the most talented in the industry – and they know it?


Pick up your baton. This is where it can feel like conducting.

    • Take time to find out where their strengths and interests lie. What do they like to do outside of work? Do they like to take photos? Have them help with the employee newsletter taking internal photos. Are they secretly writing comic books? Maybe they want to give copywriting a try. Ask questions and see what other interests they have.
    • Rotate “coaches” to work with your employees every few years. It is good to have employees coached by different people so they can learn how to interact with different personalities, ways of doing things, insights, etc. (Here is a good article on the difference between a “coach” and a “manager.”)
    • Challenge them. Give them a project that has some teeth to it that will make them really think and expand their skills.
    • Develop their skills. Send them to conferences, classes and training. It is critical that they continue to learn and grow their skills, especially in the marketing field where technology changes the ballgame every five years.
    • Be honest. Give real-time feedback when a project is going so-so, don’t wait until the end or even the end of the year. Part of learning and improving is making adjustments. Use phrases such as “What about trying” or “Did you think of doing” and solicit responses from them with open-ended phrases such as “Where were you thinking of going next.”
    • Meet regularly to find out how they are doing. Nothing formal, take them to coffee or touch base after a meeting. Knowing how they are doing in their role will help to keep the surprise departures to a minimum.
    • When conflict arises between team members, diffuse quickly. This can be tricky and delicate. Sometimes jealousy, or a sense of unfairness can build up amongst team members and get out of hand. If you learn of something, even a whisper of something, address it with the individual immediately, before it turns into something larger.
    • Show interest. Guess what? They are interesting! Get to know them. You don’t have to cross the boss/employee line, but showing interest in them will demonstrate to your employees that you are not just a demanding boss, but a boss who takes an interest and cares. Looking back I know I’ve always worked harder for those bosses who showed an interest in me.

Is it possible for one person to do each item for each and every employee on a large team? Nope. That is why you have managers, directors, team leaders and supervisors to help manage a department. But by making an effort to be a boss that is human and relatable is noticed and appreciated – and will help the team play – and sound – truly harmonious.