The passing of Apple’s legendary leader, Steve Jobs, brought with it a remarkable flood of poignant tributes from every corner. Many noted his amazing impact – as inventor, leader, and visionary – on the way we communicate, work, and entertain ourselves. There is no doubt that his influence and vision will live on in the products and company he created.
At the same time, a relatively small proportion of these retrospectives noted the downside of Jobs’ brilliant characteristics – a demanding nature that could often demean employees. It seems that his famous creative and inspiring temperament simultaneously wrought “the bullying, manipulation and fear that followed him around Apple.” This has led me to reflect this week on the costs and benefits of “star” employees in organizations.
In Jobs’ case, his inordinate gifts seem to have far outweighed – though didn’t excuse – his negative impact. Of course, as founder/CEO, his role was quite different than the “hired hand” position of even the most valuable employee. I wonder, though, if the benefits of “star” employees in organizations outweigh the true costs in many cases. Here are a few examples from throughout my career.
Product Creator / Collaboration Destroyer
This employee is revered for their ability to consistently create products that take the company’s line to the next level. To the good, they can serve to inspire other employees to “raise their game” and spur heightened contributions from all. A different temperament, though, could act as an intellectual “bully” – shutting down all lines of thinking not obediently aligned with their own, and thus severely limiting the capacity of team members to contribute at the level they would in a truly collaborative environment. The opportunity cost of diminished collaboration can never be truly known – but the negative impact to culture has an undoubtedly lasting effect.
High Potential / High Maintenance
An up-and-coming employee is identified and treated as a “high potential.” The “hi-po” can bring with them a contagious energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity — spurring a “rising tide that lifts all boats,” if you will. This can help create an environment in which everyone raises their sights and stretches to grow and develop. Going in the other direction, though, a high-potential of a different temperament – one that requires constant “coddling” or unending positive reinforcement – may take on an air of entitlement and display an unwillingness to engage in “grunt work” that is inevitably part of most any job in any organization. That is to say, the daily business of the organization must be done, and it’s not always exciting or glamorous. If their expectations aren’t modified, the hi-po’s disgruntlement can feed resentment in others and lead to toxic working relationships.
High Sales / High Support Costs
With natural sales skills fueled by tremendous ambition and determination, this sales person outsells their peers by a considerable margin. They are celebrated for their results, and rightly so. As it is said, “nothing happens until someone sells something.” There is a risk, though, that their stellar sales figures eventually result in demands for similarly stellar perks (such as higher commission rates) and increased support (clerical and administrative support in the home office, additional staff to carry out the more “menial” customer service/relationship maintenance interactions that occur during the year, etc.). The star’s results may easily justify the increased costs … or it could come to a point where they don’t. A full accounting is needed for accurate assessment.
Antidote: Effective Management
As with many things in business and in life, a great strength can become a great weakness if over-used or not effectively positioned or reined in. This, of course, is the job of the manager. It is sometimes a difficult task not to “fall in love” with the star’s results to the point where a blind eye is turned to the resulting costs and dysfunctions. For the good of all concerned, though, it is vital for the manager to “protect” the star from themselves – drawing out the good, and limiting the negative excess. From the HR side, it is incumbent upon us to help managers see the balance.
What has been your experience with the upsides and downsides of star employees?
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