How to Fill Your Company with Rockstar Employees
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Leadership Innovation Apr 3, 2018

How to Fill Your Company with Rockstar Employees

Four steps to build a culture that attracts the best of the best.

Rockstar employees rehearse in their cubicles.

Lisa Röper

Based on insights from

Jeff Hyman

Attracting and retaining talent is the top concern of CEOs, and for good reason. People problems are both expensive and common.

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Good hires, meanwhile, can be several times more productive than the average performer, according to Jeff Hyman, an adjunct lecturer of management and organizations at the Kellogg School and chief talent officer at Strong Suit Executive Search. “You get incredible value and build incredible organizations by recruiting the right people,” he says.

For Hyman, the “right people” are those in roughly the top 5 percent of candidates for a given position at a given compensation level. These are the “rockstars,” as he describes them, and executives need to get past the idea that hiring occurs on a bell curve.

“I don’t agree that you have to settle for some standard distribution,” he says. “You’re going to have As, Bs, and Cs, of course, but I don’t believe only 5 to 10 percent of your performers can be rockstars. You can have 50 percent rockstars, or more.”

So what can companies do to appeal to rockstars? Creating a culture conducive to attracting and keeping this talent—the subject of Hyman’s new book, Recruit Rockstars—takes effort. Hyman discusses four steps leaders can take to make their workplaces attractive to the best of the best.

Rockstars Thrive on Challenge

Rockstars, by definition, are in demand. Even in recessions, headhunters reach out. “One of your jobs as a leader is to make sure that when the phone rings for one of your rockstars—and you’re not going to stop the phone from ringing—they say, ‘No, thanks. I’m not interested,’” says Hyman.

Creating a rockstar-friendly culture begins with the recognition that what rockstars generally care about above all else—more, even, than compensation—is challenge. They are ambitious, and so they are jazzed by the prospect of facing something they have never done before. Stretch assignments are central to keeping rockstars engaged and also training them for promotion.

To ensure rockstars are being properly challenged with such projects, companies should assign them a senior executive to act as a mentor. “These are the sponsors, so to speak,” he says. In addition to championing rockstars and seeking out new opportunities for them, mentors should be tasked with providing career coaching and acting as a sounding board for difficult situations.

“And,” adds Hyman, “they are the ones who should be held accountable if that rockstar leaves.”

Be Creative with Compensation

When questions of compensation inevitably come up, leaders should be ready to answer appropriately.

Compensation comes in many forms—salary, title, new assignments, perks, bonuses, equity grants—and being creative with these offerings can help retain top talent. But above all, Hyman warns against what he refers to as “the peanut-butter approach” to compensation.

Most companies seem to adopt guidelines, however arbitrary, that set the range for annual raises in the single digits, perhaps 1 percent at the bottom and 5 percent at the top. Managers take the budget they are given and dole it out based on performance, but the range is narrow.

“I don’t agree that you have to settle for some standard distribution... You can have 50 percent rockstars, or more.”  

“And now you’ve done a world of hurt for your top performers,” Hyman says. “They were amazing, and you’ve given them just a 5 percent increase, which is tantamount to a slap in the face.” Moreover, he says, providing underperformers with even a small raise sends the message that their work was good enough. You’ve done damage all around.

The compensation distribution, argues Hyman, should be more dramatically skewed, with some performers receiving as much as a twenty-percent raise, while others receive nothing—as long as the math adds up. And in his view, it might. After all, a well-compensated team of rockstars should ignite corporate performance and increase the pot for everybody. Rockstars also spread word to their rockstar friends, making recruitment easier.

Attend to Rockstars Who Leave

There is always a chance that, despite stretch assignments, close mentoring, and generous raises, a rockstar will leave. It’s easy to let people move on without thinking twice, but Hyman offers two pieces of advice if a rockstar heads for the exit.

First, conduct a thorough exit interview. This is not to convince a rockstar to stay—presumably you have already exhausted those avenues—but to find out if there are organizational problems that will prevent other high performers from thriving.

“What signs were there?” Hyman says. “If it was something you missed, if the person felt underappreciated or wasn’t mentored closely enough, then you need to figure out what led to that oversight and solve that problem before trying to attract other rockstars.” This last point, he noted, is essential: retention comes first. Don’t bother recruiting rockstars if you cannot keep them aboard.

Second, go for the “boomerang hire.” Check in regularly with rockstars who leave, wherever they are newly employed. If they are not as happy as they expected to be, then open the door. Invite them to return.

“Tell them there’s no harm, no foul, no penalty. You’d love to have them back,” Hyman says. “When they come back, which they sometimes will, the message it sends to the other rockstars in the organization is that the grass is not always greener. That can be incredibly powerful for retention.”

Keep Communication Clear

Introducing a rockstar-friendly culture has the potential to dramatically increase a firm’s performance. But the changes adopting such a culture would require also have the possibility to divide and stratify employees, rather than unite them. The key to preventing divisons, says Hyman, is clear communications.

He suggests first reaching out to the entire management team, selling them on the idea of more actively funneling resources toward top performers—and putting the onus on them to make sure this message permeates throughout the organization.

“Explain that from here on, it’s their job as managers to convey openly, honestly, and frequently where everybody stands, to ensure that top performers are sufficiently rewarded and bottom performers know that they’re not going to be successful,” says Hyman.

There is no bigger failure for a manager, he says, than giving a performance review and witnessing surprise on the employee’s face. People should always know where they stand.

“If you have taken the time to educate, to explain, and to hold your managers accountable for doing the same, then— while employees may not necessarily like the feedback—they won’t be alienated,” he says. “There won’t be any surprises.”

In fact, Hyman recommends doing away with the annual performance review entirely.

“It’s a relic and its time has come,” he says. “Progressive companies are shifting to quarterly, monthly, or even continuous performance feedback through tools such as Tinypulse. And rockstars crave that feedback because they want to progress and hone their crafts.”

Featured Faculty

Adjunct Lecturer of Innovation & Entrepreneurship from 2017-2020

About the Writer
Dylan Walsh is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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