Thoughts from the Field - Issue #15 - The Impact of
By Kristine Kern
April 2013

The Impact of "Rock Stars" on Healthy Teams

A rock star team member. Sounds great, right? Who doesn't want to have at least one of those on their team? Life would be so much easier. We'd meet our goals; hit our numbers; take more vacation time.

What exactly do I mean by rock star, though? I'm talking about those team members who consistently perform above and beyond their peers. They may be able to do so based on pure talent, or blood, sweat and tears, or more nefarious methods — but the point is they get things done. Oftentimes, they're intently looking out for number one. They have sharp elbows. And everyone knows who they are. Mostly because the time they don't spend getting things done, they're likely talking about how much they get done. Let's just say they're not shy about their accomplishments.

The question then: Is there ever a place on healthy teams for rock stars?

A core concept of organizational health, as laid out by Pat Lencioni in The Advantage (as well as earlier works), is that of Team Number One, a commitment by which all team members place a higher priority on the team they're a member of than the team they lead or their own personal goals. You can learn more about this concept here. You see where I'm going. Hard to make a place for someone who is out to win at the exclusion of all else on a team that prioritizes the collective.

And this is a bitter pill to swallow for many organizations. It seems almost wrong from a business perspective not to allow a rock star carte blanche and to reap the rewards of their work. It's much easier to do that than it is to hold someone accountable for their actions when they clash with team values. Yet, today, we see some very successful leaders changing the game, prioritizing the collective, because they know that's the most effective long—term strategy. Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, recently replaced two members on his executive team, retail chief John Browett and mobile software head Scott Forestall. Asked about the changes by BloombergBusinessweek, Cook explained:

"The key in the change that you're referencing is my deep belief that collaboration is essential for innovation — and I didn't just start believing that... So the changes — it's not a matter of going from no collaboration to collaboration. We have an enormous level of collaboration in Apple, but it's a matter of taking it to another level."

In older, "less sexy" industries, leaders can focus their energy on hiring rock stars because they see it as a way to make up for a dearth of new talent. The head of HR for a client I worked with earlier this year in the manufacturing industry, which has had some trouble attracting younger talent, suggested that his company had to have at least a few rock stars to provide a benchmark for other employees who may not be as high performing. The irony is that the healthier a company gets, the less need it has for rock stars — for several reasons. Top employees tend to stay simply because they're happier in their jobs. They also recommend their friends for open positions. And highly functioning teams will compensate for individual weaknesses through collaboration.

In newer industries, the problem can be the opposite. The drive for great talent is so competitive that leaders sometimes let a rock star hold their entire team hostage. The instinct is to accomodate rock stars because we're afraid to irritate them. The problem is that this can encourage rogue behavior and undermine the entire team dynamic. I worked with a startup tech company last year that had hired a new head of product. The CEO and the entire team knew that the executive was incredibly talented and difficult ("the most abrasive guy I've ever worked with" is how he was described) and there was a blatant lack of trust amongst the group. But, the company had product benchmarks with funding attached that were entirely dependent on the product team. The CEO felt he couldn't make a change and still meet the deadlines.

So are all rock stars out only for themselves? Of course not. And it's our responsibility to hold all team members accountable to the same values and not let the highest performers get away with ugly behavior simply because they contribute in other — albeit valuable — ways. Remember: it takes only one person on a team to destroy trust, the foundation of healthy teams.

The ultimate answer to the question then is an unsatisfactory: it depends. Like most things, it's not black and white. Organizational health requires rock stars do both stellar and healthy work. Which shouldn't be a problem: most true rock stars rise to a challenge. Just don't be afraid to demand it.

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