Why You Can't Lead Superstars

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Scenario: "Dude, we gotta constantly tell our star recruits what they need to do. That's how we turn them into true badasses! Yay!"

Imagine Google hiring recent college grad Graham to run its entire engineering division.

What does he do? Like most newly-minted managers of superstars:

  1. "I will be the best leader they have, ever! I will create super-superstars from superstars!"
  2. So he goes on his rant: "Look, you did well before. But, you can do better with my leadership. Yay!"
  3. Two months in, to group of superstars: "Yo! This is not how you should do it. Do this, sucka!"
  4. Four months in, to 99.9% not obeying him: "You're not following directions! Are you = s-u-c-k-y?"
  5. And when he sees diminishing results: "It's all your fault! Do you want to be fired? Follow my rules!"
  6. And when the inevitable happens: "Don't leave! Ahh! Don't leave! Ahh! Do-not-leave!"

That's a microcosm of how most ill-advised managers handle their superstars. (A similar situation happened a few years ago to some CEO named Carly in Palo Alto.) The result?

  1. Morale = drainage.
  2. Productivity = drainage.
  3. Profit = drainage.
  4. Potential = drainage.

When you attempt to hand-hold your superstars, you trap their innovative abilities to kick booty. Instead, give superstars the room they need, and they'll flourish for your company -- not because of what you do, but because of what you don't do.

"But, my superstars need my leadership!"

If your "superstars" need your leadership:

  • They're not superstars.

Superstars, when given the right environment, will succeed regardless of who's at the helm. They'll tap their inner-drive to create, perfect, and refine their masterpieces. According to recent research by two London School Business professors:

If clever people have one defining characteristic, it is that they do not want to be led. If you try to push them, you will end up driving them away.

Your superstars don't need your leadership. So, what do they need? Your guidance and support.

"So, how do I treat my superstars?"

Four steps:

  1. Guide them.
  2. Set relevant boundaries.
  3. Get out of the way.
  4. Watch them shine.

Scenario: You + NBA All-Stars

Think of it this way: Imagine yourself as a shy 15-year old high school kid coaching a team of NBA all-stars in the Olympics.

  1. You know your duty is to bring home the Gold Medal, or you die.
  2. You admit your knowledge horrifically sucks relative to your all-stars.
  3. You rely on their expertise as much as possible.
  4. You provide as much support as you can -- whether that's giving your expert advice, getting them support manuals, providing them specialists, boosting their morale, or providing a healthy environment -- whatever that helps them do their jobs much better to achieve that Gold Medal.
  5. Then, you get out of the way to let them shine.

Essentially: You're your superstars' b*tch. (That's the secret sauce to managing high-flying superstars.)

"How do I know I'm doing a good job?"

One simple question to ask your team of superstars:

  • "Yo! Are you passionate like mutha-!@^^%^ doing what you're doing?"

That question tells you how awesome of a kick-booty environment you're providing for your superstars. If you get a negative to that question, start asking yourself:

  1. Is the red tape -- i.e. bureaucracy -- too much?
  2. Do I understand what motivates Superstar Tomas?
  3. Do I know what environment's most conducive to Superstar Robb?
  4. Is my culture free of politics (i.e. an open-culture)?
  5. Does my culture encourage free experimentation?

Give your super badasses an arena, a boundary, some guidance, support tools, the whole dealio, then tell 'em:

Run free, homies. Run free.

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Posted on March 01

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