How to Engage Your Superstars

If you are in charge of a superstar, then you must be a super superstar. Right? That’s a lot of pressure. One of the awkward secrets of managing superstars is that many managers are not 100 percent sure they really have what it takes to continue leading that superstar.

Even superstars need guidance, direction, support and encouragement.

Sometimes managers fool themselves into thinking that their superstars are so talented, skilled, and motivated that they don’t need to be managed at all. But even superstars need to be managed. Just like everyone else, superstars have bad days and lapses in judgment, and sometimes they go in the wrong direction. Even superstars need guidance, direction, support and encouragement. Most of all, superstars want to be challenged and developed.

Sometimes managers tell me, “This superstar is different. She is so talented, skilled and motivated that I have nothing to offer her.” If that’s truly the case, it doesn’t mean the person doesn’t need a manager. It just means you are second-guessing whether you are up to the challenge. You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to be a great coach. You need to be, first and foremost, reliably persistent, consistently engaged, providing that regular touchpoint of accountability – at the very least, a mirror always there to provide an honest source of feedback. The superstar wants a performance coach who knows exactly what she is doing; one who is in a position to help her do more, faster, and better, and to keep track of her successes.

Most of all, superstars want to be challenged and developed.

Too often, here’s what happens instead: Managers let themselves off the hook, thusly: “Does this super star really need me? I’ve got other more pressing things to deal with. I’m just glad to have someone I don’t have to worry about.” The manager then inadvertently neglects that superstar for days or weeks or months at a time. Why would you ever do that? Because you know that the building isn’t going to burn down if you leave the superstar alone. You know she can handle everything that is thrown at her and more. In fact, you lean on her plenty as your unofficial backup on everything. You expect the most from her. You demand the most from her, or at least request the most, knowing darned well that she rarely says “no.” Rather than lavishing the superstar with attention and privileges, you heap new responsibilities on her already formidable pile, often without giving her guidance and direction because you know she is so good she’ll figure it out on her own. The superstar is self-starting and highly motivated. She doesn’t need you to pat her on the back every day. She’s so good, she must know that you appreciate her value. At least you hope she knows that you will find a way to recognize and reward her properly for her contribution soon – just not now, please.

Here’s the problem: As soon as you start neglecting the superstar, you cease to be that special performance coach who will be a central player in building this next stage in her career progression. Why would you give up that role? Yet we see this in our research all the time. Superstars want to fill that role in their careers. If you give up that role, they will fill it with someone else before long. As soon as you give up that role, you start to lose the superstar.

Sports woman in star position for run

Instead of neglecting your regular one-on-ones with your superstars, double down on them. Put your one-on-ones with superstars at the top of your priority list, ahead of one-on-ones with the lower performers. Then take those one-on-ones with your superstars to the next level. To keep a superstar engaged:

  • Prepare more, not less, for every one-on-one
  • Always check regularly to make sure that things are going as well as you think. Just like everybody else, superstars need to provide regular reports on their tasks and responsibilities. Regardless of their talents, you need to verify that the work is getting done
  • Pay close attention to how superstars challenge you in ways that you don’t expect. Learn from the way they force you to stay on your toes and think on your feet
  • Brainstorm about recurring problems and innovative solutions
  • Learn from their frontline intelligence (“What’s really going on out there?”) And learn from their analysis (“What do you make of what’s going on out there?”)
  • Help them pursue technical expertise, professional training, and any specialized knowledge
  • Make sure they get their needs met and aren’t looking for another job. Go out of your way regularly to ask, “What do you need from me?” Keep track of their great work, and look for ways to provide them with special rewards
  • Challenge superstars to be peer leaders and coach them every step of the way
  • Teach them the tricks and the shortcuts, warn them of pitfalls, and help them solve problems. Support them through bad days and counsel them through difficult judgment calls
  • Once in a while, talk strategically about how superstars should navigate their careers within the larger organization, if there is one. Discuss how work assignments have been going and what assignments should be sought next; new training opportunities, transfers to new work groups, or moves to new locations. You might recommend strategies for pursuing raises, promotions, or desired work conditions. The idea is to offer regular career advice from an insider’s perspective so they don’t have to get it from outsiders (like from headhunters)
  • Use your influence and authority in the organization to make sure that the most valuable players are getting the lion’s share of resources to support and accelerate their career success. Talk regularly with your superstars to make certain that nothing has gone or is going wrong in their work assignments. Steer them to the best training opportunities and the most powerful decision makers. Fast-track them to win bonuses, raises, promotions, and desired work conditions.