Written by Nicola Heath
When managed well, a star employee can be a great asset to an organisation. If not, they can become a toxic presence in a team.
Capable, high-performing star employees can be a valuable addition to a team – if they are managed well.
Simon Smith is founder and CEO of Southern Cross Coaching and Development and a judge in the 2017 Institute of Managers and Leaders’ Australian Leadership Excellence Awards (ALEAs).
He says in some cases a star employee can act as a double-edged sword. “They can be important for inspiring other people around them to improve and develop. But, if they’re too much on a pedestal, people can think, ‘I’m never going to get there, so there’s no point’.”
A high-performing employee may look good on paper, but problems can arise if their behaviour doesn’t align with an organisation’s values. Smith recalls working with a star performer who was a poor cultural fit for the company. He didn’t work well in a team, withholding information and neglecting to help his colleagues. “While he was a star, he was a toxic star,” Smith says.
What makes an employee a star?
In Inc., Shine United CEO Curt Hanke identifies the top five traits of star employees: they have integrity and a proven ability to get things done, are low drama, plan ahead to avoid surprises and are passionate about what they do.
It’s important to deal with each employee as an individual and avoid blanket policies, emphasises Smith, who recommends using one-on-one conversations to find out what drives your star. “Listen to what they need and what’s important to them.”
This dialogue should shape the approach you take. “Some stars like to be praised in front of the whole team, some don’t,” says Smith, who warns against making assumptions about your team members. “As a rule of thumb, lots of autonomy is normally good for a star performer, but they may need a fair amount of attention. It depends on the person.”
Give your star regular feedback in an honest and respectful manner. “Reinforce what they’re doing well, ask them where they need to improve and what assistance they need to do that.”
Mentorship can be beneficial – if it’s something the employee wants and needs. “Getting them the right mentor is the key thing,” says Smith.
Having a clear picture of your employee’s goals will help to avoid burnout, a serious risk for high-performing team members who love a challenge and have unlimited drive.
It will also help avoid what Michael E. Kibler, writing for HBR, calls brownout – when successful, high-performing people to lose their passion for work.
The solution Kibler recommends is one he calls ‘active partnering’, where a manager invests resources in helping an employee achieve both professional and personal goals.
“The point is to foster a dialogue that allows bosses (and therefore businesses) to build true partnerships with their most important people,” Kibler writes, dismissing critics who claim the approach is too unwieldy. “When firms do so, it dramatically increases the commitment and impact of its stars.”