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How Do Rock Star Employees Impact Healthy Teams?

There’s the good. There’s the bad. And there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for minimizing the headaches.
COLLABORATORS Kristine Kern, John Treace
Managing rock star employees
photo by Andrew Hitchcock

No matter what your industry, from pro sports to Wall Street, chances are you’ve managed at least one majorly talented and totally arrogant player. Ideally, we’d boot the egotist and keep winning. But what if this “rock star” employee is the reason you’re winning?

Kristine Kern (@kristinekern) of the Table Group — a former colleague of ours here at The Build Network — addresses this topic in the essay “The Impact of ‘Rock Stars’ on Healthy Teams” on the consulting firm’s website.

Here’s her description of a rock star, which is as good as any we’ve encountered: “I’m talking about those team members who consistently perform above and beyond their peers. They may be able to do so based on pure talent, or blood, sweat and tears, or more nefarious methods — but the point is they get things done. Oftentimes, they’re intently looking out for No. 1. They have sharp elbows. And everyone knows who they are. Mostly because the time they don’t spend getting things done, they’re likely talking about how much they get done.”

Kern acknowledges that cutting rock stars from your roster is easier said than done. “I worked with a startup tech company last year that had hired a new head of product. The CEO and the entire team knew that the executive was incredibly talented and difficult (‘the most abrasive guy I’ve ever worked with’ is how he was described), and there was a blatant lack of trust amongst the group. But the company had product benchmarks with funding attached that were entirely dependent on the product team. The CEO felt he couldn’t make a change and still meet the deadlines.”

So, yes, it may be true that your top team benefits from its pain-in-the-ass rock star. But Kern stresses that this is not a healthy long-term approach. “It’s our responsibility to hold all team members accountable to the same values and not let the highest performers get away with ugly behavior simply because they contribute in other — albeit valuable — ways,” she writes. “Remember: It takes only one person on a team to destroy trust, the foundation of healthy teams.”

Kern cites Apple CEO Tim Cook as a leader who’s “prioritizing the collective.” In October, Cook “replaced two members on his executive team, retail chief John Browett and mobile software head Scott Forstall. Asked about the changes by BloombergBusinessweek, Cook explained: ‘The key in the change that you’re referencing is my deep belief that collaboration is essential for innovation — and I didn’t just start believing that. . . . So the changes — it’s not a matter of going from no collaboration to collaboration. We have an enormous level of collaboration in Apple, but it’s a matter of taking it to another level.’”

Let’s be clear: Ousting a rock star from your team — or asking them to change their ways — is not always something you can do. But it’s something you should consider. “Like most things, it’s not black and white,” Kern concludes. “Organizational health requires rock stars do both stellar and healthy work. Which shouldn’t be a problem: Most true rock stars rise to a challenge. Just don’t be afraid to demand it.”



So you’ve decided it’s time to have “the talk” with your rock star employee to address his or her behavioral issues. What should you be sure to bring up? In the Inc. article “Does Your Rock Star Have a Bad Attitude?” management consultant John Treace lists the three bases you need to cover: “1. Calmly explain that you’ve seen their discontent and are worried that it’s spreading to others; 2. Listen to their complaints, and respond with facts to set the record straight; and 3. Make an emotional appeal: [Their] behavior is probably driven by emotion, and emotion is neutralized with emotion, not with facts alone.”

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