Managing your star performers should be no sweat, right? After all, they’re delivering results and exceeding targets. But don’t think you can just get out of their way and let them excel. They require just as much attention as everyone else. How do you manage someone who is knocking it out of the park? How do you keep stars excited about their work? And what risks should you watch out for?
Having a supremely talented employee on your team is a boss’s dream. But it can be a real challenge, too, according to Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School. You need to make sure your star has enough on her plate to stay fully engaged—but not so much that she gets burned out. And you need to offer positive feedback—but not in ways that are counterproductive to the person’s growth and development. Group dynamics are another concern when you have a standout performer on your team, says Mary Shapiro, who teaches organizational behavior at Simmons University and wrote the HBR Guide to Leading Teams. “Real resentment can build, due to the perception that the boss is favoring the rock star,” she says. Whether your star performer has just joined your team or has been working for you for a while, here are some tips on how to manage her.
One of the hardest things about managing a supremely competent and confident employee is making sure he’s sufficiently challenged in the job. The antidote to this problem is “classic talent development,” Shapiro says. First, “ask your employee, ‘Where do you want to go next, and what experiences do I need to give you to make sure you get there?’” Then, find opportunities to help the person acquire new skills and sharpen old ones. Hill recommends that you help the employee get “exposure to other parts of the organization” that will “broaden his perspective.” And, of course, “don’t neglect the B players,” Hill adds. Otherwise, you’re not building the capacity of the team, and “over time, people become de-skilled.” Everyone on your team “deserves to be developed.”
Another way to ensure your star employee stays engaged and excited about coming to work is to “give her more autonomy,” Shapiro says. “Demonstrate trust by delegating authority and responsibility” over certain projects and tasks. And don’t micromanage. “Give her discretion in how she does the work.” If a formal promotion is not possible, or your employee is not quite ready for one, think creatively about ways to sharpen her leadership skills. “Give her training responsibilities,” she adds. “Ask your rock star to work with other people on the team to mentor them and develop them.”
Generally speaking, “stars tend to be very needy” and require more praise and reassurance than your average employee, Hill says. But you don’t want to “get into the habit of feeding an ego.” She recommends giving your stars “the appropriate amount of feedback” by “acknowledging their contributions.” If your star executed a project beautifully or made a stellar presentation, say so. But you needn’t go overboard. “Help him learn to monitor himself,” she says, “and to acknowledge the contributions of other members of the team who are helping him be successful.” Shapiro agrees, noting that some stars don’t expect or want constant praise. “Don’t assume you know what motivates them.”
An important part of your job as a boss is making sure the work is divided fairly. This can be a challenge when you’re managing someone who is head and shoulders above everyone else. “You want to give [all] the tasks to the rock star, because you know the rock star will get the job done,” Shapiro says. But while “it’s convenient for you,” overwork will lead to burnout. To keep that from happening, she recommends doing “a careful analysis of what’s on [your star’s] plate” to identify tasks and projects that can be removed “to make capacity for other projects.” It’s likely that your “rock star will be reluctant to let anything go,” but you must hold firm. “Be explicit and say that you want to give her more bandwidth so that she has the brainpower, energy, and time to be at her best.” And beware of team burnout, Hill says. “Superstars are known as pacesetters,” she says. “It can be exciting and inspiring for other people to work with them, but often others can’t keep up.” You need to “make sure the workload is reasonable” for everyone.
Superstars can generate team tension. Perhaps they expect performance equal to theirs from others, or peers are jealous of their abilities and treat them differently than everyone else. You can’t control others’ emotions, but you do have a say in the way they act. First, and most important, “don’t play favorites,” Hill says. Next, talk to your team members about group dynamics and their individual behavior. Your goal is to “make sure they’re treating [the star] appropriately.” Shapiro agrees: “You need to have one-on-one conversations with everyone. Ask, ‘What motivates you and how can I help?’”
You’ll need to talk to your star, too. Many high performers have trouble developing trusting relationships, Hill says. “They’re quick studies, so they don’t ask questions and don’t try to build bridges, mostly because they don’t have to.” It’s your job to encourage them to network and to “help them develop their capacity to engage with others and learn the power of collaboration.” Explain that “to contribute to organizations today, you need to be able to work with other people in different functions.” Then “be a partner in helping the person integrate with the group.” Demonstrate “how his work benefits from other points of view.” And use role-play to teach him how to successfully work with peers.
No one wants to lose a superstar employee, but when you’re dealing with someone who’s very “competent and capable,” it may be a “signal that she’s ready for more than you can offer” in a particular role, Shapiro says. Don’t lose her to another company, though. Consider the priorities of your entire organization and whether there’s a fit for her outside of your team. Be prepared “to fight battles on two fronts,” Shapiro adds. “Talk to your boss about finding your star a position in the company so that she moves up, while also making sure she’s replaced” with someone who will succeed in the role. It’s a “common trade-off and management dilemma,” adds Hill. “But you can’t hoard talent.”
Jon Stein, the CEO and founder of Betterment, the online financial adviser, says that he’s been “lucky to have a number of stars” on his team over the years.
Laura*, in particular, stands out. She joined the New York City–based company as an executive assistant five years ago. She lacked experience but “she showed a lot of promise and drive,” Jon recalls. During their weekly meetings, Jon gave Laura “positive feedback on the things she had done well” but also made sure to talk about areas where she could improve. The two often discussed different ways for her to take on more. It wasn’t always easy to find “new challenges for her,” he says. “We would set the bar ever higher with stretch goals, and it would soon become clear she could deliver.”
So Jon encouraged Laura to think about her longterm prospects, “painting multiple potential career paths” for her: One day she might manage learning and development at the company, or maybe she could lead the facilities group. He then directed her to experiences that would prepare her for each of these possible roles. “I wanted to give Laura the opportunity to try new things,” he says.
At the same time, Jon coached Laura on networking. He encouraged her to “build a solid peer group of more experienced people outside of the company” to accelerate her learning. “Now, whenever she has a question, she can find an answer relatively quickly. People come to her with questions, too. She has done a lot to lead and expand her network.”
Giving Laura more responsibility for various corporate functions was “gradual,” Jon says. Today Laura manages a team of 15 employees and has responsibility over facilities and human resources, among other areas. “She’s done a great job,” Jon says.
And yet he says he is always mindful about not giving Laura special treatment. Weekly one-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports are standard practice at the company. And regular employee feedback is part of the Betterment culture. “I don’t play favorites,” he says. “I don’t want to give her opportunities that others don’t get.”
*Names have been changed.
Rebecca Knight is currently a senior correspondent at Insider covering careers and the workplace. Previously she was a freelance journalist and a lecturer at Wesleyan University. Her work has been published in the New York Times, USA Today, the Boston Globe, and the Financial Times.
Adapted from “How to Manage Your Star Employee,” on hbr.org, June 30, 2017 (product #H03RC0).