November 3, 2014

This is the core message of my teaching: The most important things leaders do is help other people succeed.

So what happens when they indeed succeed, and in a really big way? What’s your responsibility when a member of your team builds a massive fan base, wins coveted awards, or rakes in high revenues for your organization?

Congratulations, You get to manage a star – with all the joys and challenges that accompany that responsibility.

I hope I haven’t frightened you.

Not all stars are problematic, although recent high profile management/star conflicts (Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Simmons, Don Surber) might leave that impression.

How stars wield the clout born of their contributions determines whether they’re what I call “low maintenance” or “high maintenance.”

Low maintenance stars are collegial, productive, interested in the organization as well as themselves, and committed to core values including integrity and quality.

But low maintenance stars aren’t sheep. They may still be tough salary negotiators, seek more staff or tech support, and expect creative scheduling or other perks in exchange for the value they add to the business.

Low maintenance stars also push back against management. In fact, their colleagues often ask them to use their influence to speak up for the team. In the many years I’ve taught leadership seminars for television news anchors and seen feedback from their peers about their performance, it’s clear the anchors’ starring role provides them a platform others lack. They can more safely serve as the “loyal opposition” — questioning quality lapses, system flaws, or unwise management decisions. When they do it effectively, it’s appreciated by both their buddies and their bosses.  Honest. I’ve seen it and I’ve lived it in my own newsroom.

Then there are the high maintenance stars. In that category you find egocentricity and narcissism, and an expectation that they’re exempt from standards that apply to others – from civility to process. They chafe at being edited or even supervised. They specialize in going around their immediate supervisors and demanding to deal only with top-level bosses. The people who work with them live in fear of outbursts and insults. At worst, they not only flout workplace rules of the road, but their off-the-clock behavior becomes a headache for their organizations as well.

The management migraine, as we see in the Ghomeshi story, pulses at the intersection of fair process for an employee accused of wrongdoing, public relations, and transparency with staff and the public. This Toronto Star story lays all that out quite well.

Who’s to blame for high maintenance stars?

The stars themselves, of course, but also the organizations that let them thrive. The high-maintenance stars aren’t really being managed, they’re being enabled. Their co-workers take the brunt of their behavior as long as they can stand it, and feel it’s useless or even risky to complain about them. (Reach back ten years ago to the Jack Kelley fabrication scandal at USA Today to see a vivid illustration of that phenomenon.)

So, how do great bosses manage stars? With these understandings:

  • High performers and high producers deserve managers who reward that success in every responsible way.
  • Managers of stars should always be upfront about what the limits of the rewards will be and what’s non-negotiable.
  • Treating colleagues as servants or punching bags is non-negotiable.
  • Ignoring standards and ethics of the organization is non-negotiable.
  • Star performers often experience insecurity, fearing their success is tenuous. They may overreact to small mistakes — their own or those of others — as a threat to their status. They need managers who help them reframe those situations, calm their fears and find solutions.
  • Staying close to stars rather than keeping a distance is wise. Access to managers enables them to have a sounding board for their ideas, aspirations and concerns.
  • No matter how celebrated or accomplished, high performers still appreciate honest positive and negative feedback from a trusted manager.
  • We get what we hire – for better or worse. If we a bring someone into the workplace because we like their “edginess” or the “in your face” style of their work, and don’t manage them well, we can’t be surprised when they take that approach to their colleagues, managers or the public. We created our own monster.
  • The co-workers of stars matter, too. If the stars’ perks and privileges seem excessive and unfair to their good (if not yet great) colleagues, it can be demoralizing and demotivating. Tomorrow’s stars may leave.

Finally, remember this:

There’s always room for one more star in any organization. Find them, grow them, groom them – then manage them well. After all, the most important thing leaders do is help others succeed.

 * * *

 My work with TV news anchors in our leadership seminars provides me additional insights into “stars” — including some surprises.  I share them in the companion podcast to this column.

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
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