Are superstars worth the pain?

Once in a while, as a manager, you will be fortunate enough to have a team member who is a superstar. These people are not just above average, they are vastly better. They are smarter, more driven, highly focused, and they get far more work done than the rest. It often seems like they are just coasting through it, but miraculously they achieve well beyond the others.

If you are fortunate enough to have a superstar working for you, it usually comes with both benefits and curses. Certainly it can be a joy to have someone you can count on to excel every time you give them as task. As a manager, you dream about having the kind of team members who will just take what you give them, and exceed your wildest dreams every time. Get more than one of these people and you think you’ve died and gone to manager’s heaven.

It is common for superstars to be a royal pain when in a group.

That is, until it comes time to work as a team. There’s something about superstars that makes them innately incapable of “playing well with the other children”. Perhaps it’s their low tolerance for busywork, structure, and stupidity. It may be that they know they are superior. Maybe it’s their habit of picking and eating their ear wax… Whatever it is, it certainly is common for superstars to be a royal pain when you try to get them to work in a group.

I’ve seen dozens of superstars. Microsoft seemed to attract, select for, groom, and coddle them. I worked with some of the brightest minds in the world at Microsoft, and many people who I would consider well worth the title of superstar. I have managed more than my fair share of them. And I have the battle scars to prove it.

There is an extended discussion of this topic that you might enjoy in the podcast episode: Superstar.

I made the mistake at one point of promoting one of the brightest minds at the company to be a team leader for me. One of the few pure geniuses I’ve ever encountered, his Ivy League degrees, Rhodes scholarship, and meteoric rise at the company couldn’t rescue his team from his short temper, low tolerance for mistakes, and his blatant misogyny.

On his watch, a team I’d carefully recruited and nurtured for months was disintegrating before my eyes. After numerous angry departures, threats of legal action, and failed attempts to counsel him and get the team back on track I removed him from a leadership position. And since I believe strongly in helping my fellow managers, I added “this person should never be allowed to manage people” to his performance review. He was recently mentioned in a prominent business publication as a likely future CEO of the company…

But, I digress. In this case, clearly the pain of a superstar wasn’t worth it. It was really my fault, I should have far more carefully considered his management skills before I promoted him out to a role that he wasn’t suited for. The larger question is: is it ever worth it to have superstars on the team?

The short answer is, yes, superstars are worth the pain.

The short answer is, yes, superstars are worth the pain. But only if they are in a role that suits them, and only if you can find a way to control their impact on the rest of the team.

The issues with the rest of the team are many. Very often people resent working with superstars. Even if the manager is careful to not show favoritism, people often perceive a bias in the superstar’s direction. How, after all, could they be doing so well, getting so much done, and attracting so much attention? They can’t stand watching someone else finish the task in half the time, and I don’t blame them.

But more often than not, superstars do get recognition and attention from management. And that just rubs some people the wrong way. Especially when it seems like their gift is not learned or earned, just that — a gift.

If you put superstars in charge, more often than not it ends up being a nightmare for everyone.

And if you put superstars in charge, more often than not they get frustrated with the less competent members of the team, with the progress of the project, and especially with the bureaucracy — the processes and procedures inherent to management. It ends up being a nightmare for everyone, the team, you the manager, and even the superstar themselves.

So how do you take advantage of the seemingly infinite resource that a superstar can provide? Simple: put them in their sweet spot, their area of excellence, and do whatever it takes to make them successful. Usually that means giving them what they need and staying out of their way. And regular and earnest praise helps as well.

Superstars are worth the effort. But you have to recognize what they are good at, and let them wow you at it. Don’t mistake excellence in on thing as excellence in everything. This helps to avoid the Peter Principle and saves everyone’s sanity.