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How To Manage Your Top Performer, The Alpha

By Andrea Burkholder

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

It wasn’t my fault. If you’re reading this and interested in keeping your Alpha Sales Maverick’s on top of their game, then you’ve probably been to one, two or ten of, “those kind” of conferences.

Very long days. Going from one conference room to another with 15-minute breaks in-between. Watching presenter after engaging presenter. Pen in one hand, holding onto your burnt coffee with the other, really sorry you picked the hideously dry turkey boxed lunch, but the apple was good, while trying to take notes on all of the golden bits of information you’re hearing.

Still though, you record every word on your iPad, intently sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting and hoping for “The Magical”, ONE-NEW-MIRACULOUS-NUGGET of information, you can take back with you to re-energize your team, to change your game, to boost your bottom line.

While you are getting tons of good material you can use, it’s really the networking that you are there for. Catching up with the people you have previously built relationships with and cultivating new contacts, sharing best practices, learning from each other’s trials and tribulations. Yep, that’s the real gold found at “those kind” of conferences. It’s the “after hours” get together, networking events, that’s what truly pays off!

So, see it wasn’t my fault that I had been out until 4AM! Besides by the time 2AM rolled around, knowing that I had to catch a 6AM flight out of San Diego, CA, I figured, no big deal, I’ll just catch some sleep on the plane. I used my “almighty, preferred frequent flyer perks” on Delta and was one of the first to be seated.

I got onto the plan feeling lucky, until I realized I had an aisle seat. Now I would have to wait to catch up on my much-needed rest until whoever was sitting in my row, by the window and the middle seat, came on-board and assumed their rightful position.

Trying not to fall asleep, I noticed an unusual passenger board. With his passing of each window, a hint of glitter shown off his shiny, slicked back hair. Oddly cool, I thought were the extra-long black silky pants, cowboy boots and colorful puffed sleeved shirt! As he sauntered down the aisle, an unmistakable air of confidence exuded from every ounce of his being. “Interesting”, I thought to myself, “I wonder what he’s all about?”.

To my surprise, he gracefully stopped at the seat before mine, and with one raised eyebrow, tilted his head, locked eyes with me and gesturing with a warm, crooked smile, we were about to become seat mates for the next 4 hours of our lives.

Though I was thoroughly exhausted, curiosity got the best of me. I decided to introduce myself, then inquire who he was and what he did for a living. Let me tell you, I’m glad I did! Sitting next to me was a real-life horse jockey. I don’t know about you, but I never had the opportunity to speak with a horse jockey before.

Still being in the fresh from the conference, networking and learning mode, I couldn’t help but ask question after question. How did you get into the field of racing? What do you like about it? How long are your days? What were you thinking during your first race?  Have you ever been injured?

With the passing of each question, and each interesting answer, I became more intrigued. It didn’t take me long to get to the question I most wanted to know. How often does he win? He responded, “Most of the time.”, Paused then continued, “Well, actually, almost all of the time.” Curious, I asked him, “How do you win almost all of the time? Do you ride the same horse?” “No, I don’t” he continued, “I almost always ride a different horse.” I thought to myself, “Wow, he’s winning based on HIS actions, not the horse?”

Eager for clarification I asked, “How exactly do you win? What is it that you have, that the other Jockey’s don’t?” Tilting his head, with that one raised eyebrow, nodding his head ever so slowly, he gave me that ONE-NEW-MIRACULOUS-NUGGET I had been searching for, the one that was going to change my game. With the same confidence I had seen sauntering down the aisle earlier, he responded, “I ALWAYS choose to ride the Alpha.”

Now, my mind had been on horse racing, but now it was racing in a different direction. “How do you know when a horse is an Alpha?” I asked. Lowering his voice as to make me feel like I was getting the inside track, he whispered, “I can see it in their eyes and in their actions. When we are out on the track practicing, the trainers scold me and bellow, “You shouldn’t let that horse do that, don’t let them disobey you.” Intently he continued, “You see, an Alpha horse always wants to rule the show, they want to do their own thing. Sometimes, they will try to buck you off, they will challenge you when you try to lead them into the gates, they do what they can to show you who’s boss. I NEVER correct their behavior.”

Needless to say, I was shocked, and a bit confused to learn that it was the Alpha that challenges. I guess I should have known that.  Trying to further my understanding of Alpha’s I asked, “How do your ride an Alpha horse?”.  Eager to share and educate me, he responded, “I just ride them. I really don’t have to do anything else. It’s the nature of an Alpha to lead the pack, just pure instinct. An alpha is convinced it his job and his alone to lead the pack. He will run as fast as he can, so he can get in front of the pack as far as possible. He is always looking ahead and watching for danger, so he can confidently lead the pack to safety.”

“How do you ride a non-alpha? What do they do differently?” I asked. “You really have to ride the non-alpha. You repeatedly have to yell and kick to keep them going. It’s the non-alpha’s instinct to stay with the pack, even if they have the capability to win. If a non-alpha’s unintentionally gets ahead of the pack, they will slow down in order to maintain their pack role”.  Slightly hanging his head, he continued, “That’s why I don’t take control of an Alpha. If I take control during practice, he thinks I am the Alpha then he will assume the role of non-Alpha and will attempt to stay with the pack. You limit your chances of winning the race.”

So What Is An Alpha?

By definition, an Alpha is the most dominant, dynamic, powerful or assertive person (or animal) in a group.  In the animal world, they are the protector.

Over the years, I’ve also found that Alpha’s like to shine, they like to go the extra mile, to be admired.  They tend to be bold and aren’t afraid to take risks, which explains why many of them excel when it comes to the sales process.  They tend to be extremely passionate and want to make a difference in the activities they participate in.

Recognizing An Alpha In The Workplace

Alphas can display a myriad of traits with some being more dominant than others.  Here are a few of the traits we have found to be most consistent in identifying an alpha personality.

  • They are inclined to be high performers.
  • They express bold ideas and take chances.
  • They come across as being confident both in how they talk and how they carry themselves.
  • They show tenacity. They are mentally tough and know if they keep trying, they’ll succeed.
  • They may make frequent eye contact and will rarely be the first to break it.
  • They like to win. And when I say win, I don’t mean just win, they like to blow others out of the water. They are highly competitive.
  • They may interrupt people during conversations.
  • When walking in a group, they will generally be first, leading the way.
  • During meetings or conversations, they ask frequent questions of others, but provide little information about themselves. Conversations can feel one-sided.
  • They may unintentionally take over team meetings.
  • They show their dominance by attempting to take control.
  • When they ask for something, they want it now. They are extremely impatient.

How to Manage An Alpha

Managing the alpha personality can be difficult.  I’ve found that the jockey was right, you’ll want to teach them how to leverage their strengths without taking away their Alpha instincts.  After all, the Alpha instinct is what’s driving their performance.

The important thing for your Alpha to understand is that their strengths can also be their weaknesses.  This can come as a shocker to many Alpha personalities but with knowledge, comes true power.

Alpha’s are highly competitive, which is good.  This competitiveness helps increase organizational performance if managed correctly.  The Alpha needs to understand how to drive competition among their peers and/or other organizations while making it fun for all involved.  If not, they run the risk of having the perception that they run over people.  While this may not seem like a big thing to them today, at some point, they will want to grow into other positions and this perception could limit their chances for advancement.

It’s not uncommon for your Alpha personalities to use assertive aggressiveness as an influence skill.  This can be a good in some circumstances.  Sometimes you just need to bring intensity and passion to a situation.  The problem here is that many Alpha’s only know one speed, and that’s extremely intense and passionate which can cause people to shut down.  Teach them how to apply their passion without intimidating others.

Alpha’s can also be impatient.  They apply a sense of urgency to everything they are involved in.  They want things to be done and they want them done yesterday.  This helps by getting much more done in a short period of time but can really burn people out.  Help your Alpha learn how to prioritize what should be treated as a fire drill and what shouldn’t.

Establish and teach rules of engagement.  It’s important for your Alpha to understand what the rules are and why they were set.  In fact, if you can get your Alpha to brainstorm ideas with you, they will be more likely to understand the “why” and to buy in to the desired behavior.

Leading Alphas takes a strong leader, one that understands stepping back is actually a form of leadership.  Brainstorm with them every chance you get.  Remember, if you say it, it might be true, if they say it, it’ true.

Remember, not every Alpha behavior needs to be changed.  It’s important that you identify whether the behavior is negatively impacting others or if you are just uncomfortable with them challenging you or the team.

Managing Multiple Alphas

If you truly want to grow your organization and to grow sales, you also have to understand and teach the benefits of synergy.  To amplify your growth, you will need more than one Alpha.  Most leaders struggle to maintain performance when they have two or more Alpha personalities on a team, and in all fairness, if not managed correctly, you will lose all but one Alpha.

One of the biggest mistakes I see leaders take to solve for this scenario, that rarely works in their favor, is promoting the Alpha to a leadership position before they are truly ready.  Don’t allow fear of losing one of your Alpha’s to drive you into making a bad business decision. This doesn’t do anyone any favors.  In most cases, you will wind up losing both the Alpha that was promoted too early and the team they are leading.

You’re probably wondering how I would recommend handling this scenario….here is my suggestion.

Help your Alpha’s understand that one plus one does not equal two.  The sum of their elements is greater than that, it helps them grow, it’s helps the team grow, the company grow, etc. This is a BIG one!  It’s okay to share best practices…..the stronger your competition gets, the stronger you get.

Do what you can to create space for each of them to grow individually.  They must have trust in the fact that you are providing enough “food” for them to survive.  In other words, they need space to flourish.  For example, you may benefit by splitting one sales team into two separate teams and driving competition between them or putting each of them in charge of different tasks.  Alpha’s can be territorial, so if you create the opportunity for both to survive and they believe and trust that the other won’t cross into their territory, they will each flourish.  This is key to growing your business.

There are situations where you will have to choose one Alpha over the other.  That’s just part of the business…. When this occurs, choose quality over quantity.


So, here’s your ONE-NEW-MIRACULOUS-NUGGET, don’t take away the Alpha instincts of your high performers…..refine them.  Understand that they will challenge you and their peers, and that’s OKAY.

Ask yourself a few questions….

If you are a Sales Person/Employee:

  • What are you doing to help others?
  • Are you leading the way?
  • Are you sharing best practices and working to help others succeed?
  • Are you leading others out of danger?

Remember, the better you perform, the better the rest of the pack will perform and vice versa. Be a role model,      Share best practices, Be the alpha….

If you are an Executive Leader/Consultant:

  • What are you doing to assure you don’t take on the alpha’s role?
  • Are you allowing your employees/consultees to maintain their alpha instinct? Or do you micromanage them into submission?
  • Are you empowering your alphas to be who they are?
  • Are you stifling the next potential leader in your organization or inhibiting growth for a company you consult with?

Remember, the mark of a great leader is that the organization can run smoothly without you…. just make sure your Alpha’s understand the rules of engagement and let the magic happen!

Like this article, check out our article on hiring top sales talent here or our article on gaining momentum here.





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