Monday, June 27, 2011

Rock Stars Need Not Apply

Some people love rock stars - Mark Zuckerberg, for example, thinks they’re 100 times better than everyone else.  I myself think they're about 3 times better and there are probably some people who think they're 5 or 20 times better.

Others think they’re more trouble than they’re worth and that a team of solid performers is the way to go.

And then there are people like my project social partner Dave who're happy if people just show up and do the work: ‘I’m not in a creative industry.  I don’t need to recruit the top students from MIT and couldn’t get them anyway.’  More wisdom from Dave here.

So, all kinds of opinions.  What is seems to come down to is what you’re trying to accomplish and whether it's being measured.  For example, in revenue generating jobs like consulting or sales, everyone loves rock stars.  If they’re a little full of themselves or hard to work with it's OK as long as they’re making money.

Rock stars are also tolerated in really hard jobs that no one else knows how to do (as are scraggly beards, madras shirts and Birkenstocks).

In other areas of the business - even in creative industries - it’s less clear.  No direct revenue is lost, for example, if a report or a presentation is not rock star quality.  Over time valuable hours may be wasted and the company may be less successful but the consequences of mediocrity are hard to spot where nothing measurable is at stake.

Rock stars have a reputation for being difficult to work with, doing things their own way, having better ideas (or thinking they do), putting uncomfortable truths into words and a host of other grievances.  They may be as important to company success as they think they are but that doesn't mean people want to work with them.

The average manager, for example, neither wants to deal with someone who challenges them nor with someone who potentially threatens their own job.  Ditto with colleagues, who don’t want anyone raising the bar on work quality or competing for opportunities. 

They aren’t bad people, they’re just… people.

Of course, no one says to themselves, ‘I’m intimidated by this person so I’m not going to hire them.’  What they actually say is more like, ‘I don’t think this person will be a good cultural fit.’  Or, ‘They’re overqualified for the job and will probably leave in 6 months.’  Or, ‘They don’t have the industry experience we’re looking for.’

Sound familiar?  Of course, sometimes these statements are perfectly true.  It's a subtle problem.

Bottom line: If your managers and employees feel threatened rather than exhilarated by talented people you can talk about the importance of talent all you the hand.


  1. Love the summary Laura. Question though; do companies really go out to hire 100's of rock stars and prima donnas? Or is it always one or two that seem to be difficult in a sea of good talent? Some famous person- name slips me now - said "No CEO ever failed surrounding themselves with great talent." Where I've seen failure and culture break-down is when leadership is afraid to hire or retain someone that might be better than themselves. Guess that makes the CEO the annoying Rock Star?

  2. Ooh, I like how you turned it around. And I completely agree that surrounded yourself with yes sayers and average performers isn't the best recipe for success.


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