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Managing the star performer


Star performerWe all want amazing talent within our organisations, but, once there, does the star performer need to be managed differently to the rest of the team, and if so, what approach is the best one to take? John Pope has some answers.

Some people call them the ‘rain makers’, apparently bringing what is needed to make the commercial ‘crops’ grow; others call them super-performers or stars. What are they? What do they do that is so special? How do they work? What problems do they give you? How can you keep them? How can you fit them into the rest of your team? Important questions which need some answers.

Are they really stars?

“A real star regularly produces outstanding results in several measurable aspects of the job.”

Is the star’s performance real, or is it partly the result of getting more support or being given better tasks or sales-areas with far more potential? How does the star’s performance compare with that of another team member working in much more difficult circumstances? Are they cutting corners, failing to check what they are doing, dealing with undesirable customers?

A real star regularly produces outstanding results in several measurable aspects of the job. The weaknesses are regular too so you can guard against them accordingly and prevent their over-enthusiasm and energy from corrupting their judgement.

What are they like?

Stars seem to have some characteristics in common:

  • They tend to be creative, very competitive, innovative, highly focussed, on their ‘customers’, and impatient.

  • They tend to be unwilling to recognise restrictions or regulations and have the view that ‘rules were made to be broken’. They can make commitments in their haste to get results without checking some of the implications.

  • They can be blind to the effects of their behaviour on other members of their team, and some are clearly not team players.

  • They have a high energy level.

  • They also tend not to keep records of their activities.

They also can go beyond their own ‘territory’ or area of authority. Many star field salesmen take pleasure in cross-border raiding, justifying their actions by the results they get where others have ‘failed’. As a result they can be very difficult to replace, since so many of the results they get are personal to them.

What are the big issues?

You want to keep the stars but not store up trouble for your team or yourself. There are four major issues to consider (for some stars there may be more):

  • How to channel the star’s efforts and reduce any damaging side effects without damaging the star’s performance or losing the star.

  • How to understand how the star gets outstanding results and transfer that knowledge and skills to others in the same role.

  • How to avoid the star becoming complacent and careless.

  • How to show that you are not afraid of confronting a problem. Some people turn into despots because no-one has ever faced up to them and they have got away with things too often.

You also have to find some way of rewarding outstanding performance which does not ultimately lead to ever-increasing and unmanageable expectations and the jealousy of other team members. Some respond to rewards, which mean more to them than higher pay or bonus; additional holiday is one example.

Some approaches

There is no universal ‘best approach’. Those stars can have strong and very different personalities. You have to work out what could be acceptable before you try to negotiate your way out of what could become a ‘star-losing’ problem if poorly handled. Your choice depends on circumstances, on the individual and the severity of the problems. But some options are fairly clear:

  • For the extreme case: ‘carrot and stick’. It can be effective but the effects are limited and can wear off quickly and your actions and promises must be credible. Not many intelligent people are prepared to be treated like a donkey unless the carrot is enormous, and then not usually for long. Attempts to enforce rules and disciplines which have been allowed to lapse can lead to ‘go slows’. But paying extra for conformance is also dangerous.
  • “Make sure that in your efforts to manage the star performers, you don’t neglect the care and development of others of possibly high potential.”

  • For less serious cases there can be the persistent, consistent attempt to improve the star’s understanding of the need for discipline, controls, adherence to regulations. It can be effective but usually takes a long time.

  • Organise the job around the star. Provide the necessary support, and guidance to improve contact time on ‘the stage’. Real stars in filming have an all-star supporting cast. On the stage they also have stand-ins. You can make arrangements for the stand-in to be regular so that you have better knowledge of how the star works.

  • Train up a substitute, perhaps several. Arrange for mutual support and education through meetings, workshops, training of colleagues and well of information to benefit all. Few real stars know everything.

  • You could (careful) remind the star that stars do not shine forever. You could also point out that super-performers can be too valuable to be developed for other and many senior roles, though that reasoning may have little effect on the performer who is perfectly happy doing what he does supremely well.

Other ideas

Depending on the individual and on circumstances, you could try:

  • Explaining the need for controls and procedures and the commercial and legal reasons, with consequences of failure being permanent expulsion.

  • Reducing bureaucracy and controls to the minimum consistent with safety and compliance but explain that this is a reward and conditional on continued excellence of results.

  • Provide support, secretarial help to deal efficiently with routine.

  • Provide a suitable trained or qualified but promising junior with clear potential as an assistant, with a view to learning how the star really does get results.

  • Run case studies as part of the regular team-meeting where the star, and others examine successful and unsuccessful jobs and mutual analysis and criticism, carefully moderated, is the means of examining weaknesses while in a positive atmosphere.

  • Appoint a personal manager. Real stars have managers to look after their interests – short and long-term. But that manager must not appear to be any form of a threat.

Do you have other stars?

You probably do, but their light may not be shining as it should be, perhaps eclipsed by others. You cannot afford to have only one star for each task or subject. Better make sure that in your efforts to manage the star performers, you don’t neglect the care and development of others of possibly high potential who could become better than the current stars.

How will you reward the star?

Generously, of course; you have to since they have a fair idea of their value, but be careful, ‘appetite grows with eating’. Do not give way to financial blackmail. All depends on your own approach to reward and benefits in your own organisation. One thing is certain, you should expect excellent performance from all your people and pay accordingly; big extra bonuses have to be earned by extraordinary results as a result of extraordinary effort or skill. And you do not count results as extraordinary until the results come in. Remember too that over-incentivising quickly leads to sloppy practices, as has been shown recently in the world of financial services.

You also have to look to the day when the ‘star performer’ wants a change of work or decides to leave or retire. Make sure you have thought about who could be a good replacement, secure the knowledge, and ensure they learn the skills and the job.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years, and has had his own practice as an independent consultant for over 30 years. He continues to advise businesses at senior level on their direction, strategy and especially on the management of change. To contact him, email:

2 Responses

  1. Metrics
    Many thanks for your comments and the importance of identifying those who are achievment oriented and measuring their achievements. I think it important to relate those achievements to the potential opportunities since some so-called ‘stars’ are given ‘territories’ which are much better than their coilleagues.
    I am not really happy about using ‘metrics’ to measure disruptive or selfish behaviour. That has always seemed to be an excuse for managers to avoid what really goes on in their teams. A manager should know what really goes on before anyone else does, and any ‘metric’ should only confirm what he already knows from personal observation and comments from the rest of his team.

  2. Good article – some additions
    There are some good ideas in the article. I would add a couple of thoughts. Like many others, the “stars” like a sense of opportunity, of possibility. It is worth thinking what this might be in the context of your business. Stars also tend to operate in a world which values achievement, and achievement needs to be measured and available as metrics. Metrics can also be used to measure the negative impacts of stars. There are plenty of tools out there to measure someone’s impact on their environment/culture/peers……don’t be afraid to use them. People with these high achievement needs can respond to effective “steering” about what to achieve.

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