The Collision of a Star Performer and an Employer

It’s a fact that labor and management see the world differently. However, the public is seldom invited to a ringside seat as conflict brews between senior management and the most talented of the non-executive employees working for an organization. 

We have that rare opportunity as we watch the drama unfold between the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers and their MVP quarterback of 16 years, Aaron Rodgers. In a highly public dispute, where hard information seems to come in bits and drabs and dribbles, we get a glimpse at a supremely talented and highly regarded quarterback and team leader of a storied franchise in a standoff with team management. 

While still under a contract that provided the highest pay of any NFL player when he signed his $134 million agreement only a few years ago, Rodgers is reportedly demanding to be traded — or that the team’s general manager be fired — and may be willing to sit out a year without playing, foregoing his 2021 salary and bonus potential. 

(One half of the authors of this article is a lifelong Packer fan and season-ticket holder and is more than a bit interested in the outcome. The other half is a Denver Broncos fan equally interested in Rodgers’ next move, as Denver is purported to be in the market for his services).

Rodgers, however testy his ego, has shown himself to be a formidable competitor, and one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Green Bay fans were fortunate to enjoy yet another era of winning football lead by Rodgers after the departure of Brett Favre, the previous Hall of Fame quarterback for the Packers (who had his own rough transition) and much of the team’s success is due to Rodgers’ excellence and his rare football IQ.

The Dynamics Between Employer and Star Employee

However, as employment lawyers dealing with HR issues for a combined 70 years, we’re also fascinated by the interplay between a powerful and influential employee and the sometimes-conflicting interests of the employer/owner. This issue — and the divisiveness that it introduces to an otherwise successful workplace — occurs frequently. More than occasionally it leads to litigation, whether under the guise of a breach of a non-compete or duty of loyalty obligation or wrongful termination. 

One might view the star performer as having an overly inflated ego, or on the other hand merely demanding the respect and compensation that is due for such huge contributions to the organization’s success. Employers and owners must consider the ability of the star performer to enhance, or disrupt, the workplace and the opportunity for that top performer simply to move on to the next opportunity while flaming the person’s former employer. 

Employers are then left to wonder who may follow the departed star to the new destination, and who will blossom when that star no longer dominates the company landscape. Any organization, whether driven by sales, innovation, strategic vision, or the rigor of an executive driving performance that outmatches the competition, must account for the star that is leading the effort, if the individual is not the owner or CEO. 

How do you meet the needs of the star performer while reconciling the organization’s competing interest of control, consistency, and continuity?

Managing the Aaron Rodgers in Your Company

The picture emerging in Green Bay between #12 and the Packer football franchise is not significantly different than that of the most successful salesperson for a sales-driven organization looking for an ownership stake and the aging owner who wants to continue sole control and ownership of the corporation, or the world-class CFO of an organization who has strategically moved the organization from $15 million in income to $350 million, and yet feels encumbered by lack of ownership and framing the long-term prospects of the organization. 

That star performer may believe his or her initiatives and vision are not only stymied but there is not even a line of communication to learn of the strategic and financial initiatives, or offer input gleaned from the success with the organization. 

While there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, there are a number of things, when considered earlier in a process, that might avoid the drama, or the seemingly sudden resignation of a top performer who feels that they did not receive respect commensurate with their contributions.

The interests of the top performer go beyond financial recognition.

The organization must have an alignment with its top performer that goes beyond mere current financial recognition by focusing on the future. Of course, providing competitive rewards for top performers is a given, but often there is a need for something deeper than mere compensation. 

Rodgers stood to become the top-paid player in the NFL according to at least one report, but he was more interested in a multi-year commitment that allegedly the Packers were unwilling to make at the beginning of this saga. That seems to be changing now, but perhaps it is too late to repair the damage already done.

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Short-term financial rewards alone are no substitute for long-term alignment of the interests of the parties. Does your organization have a long-term strategic plan that considers the top performer and includes a succession plan?

Access to decision-making is essential. 

When important decisions are being contemplated, top performers must be given access, but they also need to understand the limits of their influence. 

Top performers are affected by a multitude of decisions regarding other personnel, budgets, marketing, development, and expansion plans, and when those plans are made with no or limited input by a star player, the person may cry foul. In our football scenario, Rodgers was allegedly upset that a quarterback was taken in the first round in the 2020 draft, or when a productive offensive lineman or wide receiver was traded without Rodgers’ approval or (perhaps) foreknowledge. 

Top performers often develop strong egos and feel that their influence and expertise range far beyond the specific tasks with which they are charged, and their fate is deeply affected by ancillary decisions. Seeking input from them, so long as both parties acknowledge that no one opinion will carry the day, can deepen commitment and relationship.

Many stars think like owners. 

Acknowledge that many star performers begin to think like and expect the rewards of ownership. The Green Bay Packers are community-owned, and we suspect Rodgers could purchase an honorary share of stock that is otherwise worthless in terms of value or influence. However, Rodgers and many star players’ interests are a meld of self-interest and understanding of the value they bring with their performance, as well as the larger influence and rewards that are most often associated with ownership. As a result, these top performers believe that ownership-type deference and long-term financial opportunities are appropriate. 

Owners are tasked with looking at short- and long-term revenue and expense projections, growth options, and opportunities. They control the sale of their interests, whether through outside purchasers or ownership stakes by a small cadre of senior employees. By recognizing and incenting top performers with the promise of getting at least a share of business-sale proceeds or the increase in business value, organizations can align long-term interests. Aligning these ownership interests, along with the opportunity for input and authority as described above, might go a long way towards energizing the relationship between a top performer and the organization.

Integrate, don’t isolate, the relationship.

Creating regular opportunities for direct communication for your star performers with senior management and owners assures the performer that they are being heard and builds a basis for deeper relationship rather than that merely of employee and employer. If the relationship is one that needs growth and development, bring in a third-party skilled in relationship building. Use a “professional coach” (pun intended) to help identify and develop different communication and leadership styles to aid in these interactions. 

Organizations and individuals grow and grow differently sometimes. There is no guarantee that your top performer will continue to be so, whether you attempt to integrate and align interest, provide communications opportunities, and offer management and ownership influence. However, great value can be lost through simple missteps of a false promise or failure to communicate with respect and engage in active listening to your star. 

There is a caution, of course, in stroking the ego of a dominant participant in the organization. Others may feel that the rules don’t apply to the prima donna and resent special treatment accorded the top performer. In his 2007 book The No Asshole Rule; Building a Civilized Workforce and Surviving One that Isn’t, Professor Robert Sutton offers a persuasive argument that even one person of the book’s titular persuasion (not the occasional jerk which we all can be) is enough to reduce the value and disrupt the fabric of a strong organization, even if the a-hole is otherwise a top performer. 

Thomas Godar is a Madison-based partner with Husch Blackwell LLP and practices in the firm’s Labor & Employment practice group.

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