How to Manage the Superstar Employee

True story: I used to know this guy who was a department star.

He was a guy who could get stuff done, a mover and a shaker, sometimes even a hero. In his mind, he was a Superstar.

This particular Superstar had little patience for co-workers who learned or worked at a slower pace, and he thought they were lazy, ignorant, and a waste of company resources. He wouldn’t think of building them up or encouraging them. His time was too valuable for that.

He was excellent at smaller projects that he could accomplish alone, but his personality was a problem when he worked on bigger projects as part of a team.

Painting themselves into a corner

He had to be the quarterback, the front line, and the tight end. He steamrolled right over his teammates, ignored them, or wouldn’t help. His intentions may have been good, but the team suffered as a result. And no one had any fun.

On one very large and important project, he hoarded everything he had learned and didn’t bother to document or help others understand what he was doing. Unfortunately, when the project was done, no one else could support it. Only he could fix it when it broke.

He was tied to it for a long time and couldn’t move on to anything new. After working on several projects in this way, all his time was spent maintaining older projects. He had painted himself right into a corner.

I knew that Superstar well. I was that guy.

These lessons hit home when a younger, brighter Superstar joined the company.

Watching another prima donna at work

He was already an expert in the new programming language the company was implementing and was a faster programmer. Plus, he worked even more hours than me and quickly caught the eye of management. I tried to keep my Superstar status, but he blew right past me.

Even more painful: He wouldn’t communicate. He ignored me, chastised my work, and made me feel inferior. He was doing to me what I had done to everyone else. (Oh, how the mighty have fallen…)

But then he went further. He actually sabotaged some of my programs, played tricks on me, and talked down about me to my peers and even my bosses. He was mean-spirited and immature. He tried to make me look lazy, and he was doing a great job of making me look bad.

It was good that I didn’t stoop to his level, because my bosses were watching to see how I‘d handle it, to see whether I had grown up at all. Luckily, I had. I minded my own business, worked hard, and let the new Superstar be the immature jerk that he was at that stage of his life.

It wasn’t long before he burned every bridge at the company, and eventually quit.

In hindsight, these experiences taught me that my co-workers had much to offer, but I judged them too quickly and too harshly. They may have been less productive, but my impatience didn’t help. In fact, I hurt people and relationships, my department, my company, and ultimately my career.

Tips for managing a young superstar

I didn’t understand group dynamics and proved I was too immature to be a leader. I didn’t understand that people have varying skill levels. I didn’t understand that a team of people with average capabilities and intelligence could accomplish more in the long run that one well-meaning Superstar.

I learned these lessons the hard way: painfully and over a long time. No one took me aside and taught me. Years later, I became an employer and saw some of my own employees repeating these mistakes. So, I wrote this story down and shared it so we could all learn to function better within our company.

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I’m older and wiser today (and not much of a Superstar anymore), but try these tips if you have a young Superstar in your midst. These ideas either worked on me (or might have) at that time:

1. I loved it when my boss loaded me up with work!

Sometimes he’d give me the impossible, and I loved proving that it could be done, that “I” could do it! And when I was almost finished, he’d give me even more work.

He didn’t let up. He just piled it on! I was beyond challenged. I worked long hours, and many times pulled all-nighters to get it done.

It was an insane time, but I was young and single and loved the challenge.

2. My boss, an ex-Marine, checked on me frequently

I loved showing him my incremental progress. I loved it when I could impress him. (I think he was frequently impressed but almost never showed it, which kept me hustling in search of his approval.)

Superstars love recognition, and they’ll move even faster when they know you’re watching closely, so check on your Superstars often.

3. If a Superstar isn’t “playing nice,” educate them

Explain that their teammates are valuable people who are necessary to the company and to this particular project. And then bluntly say that unless the Superstar wants to spend the rest of their natural-born life maintaining and babysitting this project and missing future exciting projects, they should nicely share all information with other team members, help them succeed, and treat them with respect!

That chat would have worked on me, but if that doesn’t work, it’s time to get even more blunt. Tell the Superstar that their pay, future advancement, and job depend on their ability to play nice with others. There’s no “I” in team.

A Superstar can often do the work of four (or more) people and can be a great asset. But if the Superstar won’t humble themselves and play nice, cut them loose before your company becomes too dependent upon them.

A Superstar who can’t learn a little humility is a prima donna who will destroy your company culture, and you’re better off if they go work for a competitor!

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