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Do You Have a Star Too Bright To Handle?

Do You Have a Star Too Bright To Handle?

Imagine having a customer-service employee who is so spectacular that customers come specifically to be taken care of by that one person.  Imagine having an employee so charismatic that other great employees eagerly learn from her; people clamor to be on volunteer projects with her. Imagine having an employee whose thought leadership is so compelling and cutting edge that he puts your company on the map, and he attracts amazing job candidates. Imagine having this kind of employee so powerful and beneficial to the organization that he has achieved icon status.  What could possibly be bad about this?

Now. Imagine having to terminate that person. While your stakeholders probably wouldn’t riot, like the students did last week when Joe Paterno was unceremoniously fired from Penn State, this might be a good time to think about who holds the star power in your company. And what benefit (or threat) that celebrity can present to your organization.

Chances are excellent that you don’t have someone of Paterno’s candlepower inside your company. But it’s not out of the question that you have a few individuals who are committed to growing their careers by nurturing their personal brand. Your best people deeply care about their work – beyond the transactional level job description – and they care about your customers.  It stands to reason that some of them have a following that attaches more to them than the loyalty to the label of your institution.  (Have you ever followed a hairstylist from one salon to another? I have.)

Some stars expect star treatment. Some stars just want the trust and respect necessary to be left alone to do their work. Some stars will be courted by your competitors who know the value of their brand, perhaps more than you do. Some stars would just like to work with colleagues who care about the mission as much as they do and who aren’t threatened by the little extra oomph of passion they bring to the table.

As I was thinking about this topic, Michael VanDervort brought to my attention an article by Jessica Miller-Merrell, “When Your Personal Brand Scares the Hell Out of the Corporate Brand,” in which she describes how her team had grown suspicious of her online contributions to the conversation of using social media to improve recruitment. Which reminded me of a turning point moment in my own career. A thoroughly unqualified editor overcompensated for his obvious inadequacies by threatening to hold my feet to the fire during a SHRM conference in San Diego. It happened in the late 90’s and, frankly, the memory of it still raises my ire.  I never wrote for him again.

His loss. You couldn’t pay me enough to write for this guy (even though, presumably, after more than a decade on the job, he might have grown into his profession). And yet I write for free for HR C Suite, which has a much smaller readership by far.  Why? Because the publisher and I share a mutual respect.

Here are some considerations you might want to keep in mind as you seek to attract and keep stars in your market – or even just high-performers who love their customers and take their careers seriously:

Nothing will alienate the brilliance of talent faster than being yoked to mediocrity. If you want to attract and keep high performers, make sure they have people of the same caliber to play with.  Not that your high-performers are necessarily talent snobs.  It’s just as likely, if not more so, that the mediocre talent will do what they can to diminish, dilute, demoralize or destroy the contributions of the your best employees. (As I typed this paragraph, I had Jessica’s blog on a window directly behind this Word doc. And my eyes fell on the title of another one of her postings, “Overachievers And Why We Hate Them.” Might want to read that one too.)

Accept the fact that your most impassioned employees are likely to contribute to their profession or industry outside the scope, confines and control of your organization.  They’re curious. They’re passionate. They’re generous.  They know that to be cutting edge in their field, they must bring out the sharp implements and do the cutting themselves (which can threaten the dull-edged folks on the status quo side of your enterprise).

Accept the fact that your high-performers have to cultivate a fan base in order to do their work. They recognize that to build their own effectiveness in their field they probably have to build a following…which necessitates creating celebrity of one sort or another.  I discovered that when I moved from being a magazine writer/editor and became a book author specializing in career management.  I discovered it again when I committed a large part of my heart and career to supporting and celebrating the HR profession. As much as I’d love to labor in obscurity in my jammies and let my roots grow out, no one will care what I know until they know how much I care. And to accomplish that, I have to get out there.

Your high-performers know they have to get out there too. Conferences, articles, speeches, blogs, Google +, Twitter, the whole shebang.  It’s not an ego trip (although it might look like that to the mediocrity cadre).  It’s a necessity.  Still it can foster envy, resentment, and general peevishness among the rest of your workforce, who aren’t as energetic about their careers, but would still like the attention swag your stars appear to enjoy.

Accept the fact that your customers might love your star more than your brand.  Or that your star is your brand. Is that necessarily a bad thing? It can be if your brand is more important to you than your customer is.  But there is still no getting around this fact: If you have a star who inspires excitement and loyalty and excellence around how the public experiences your offering, what’s it worth to you to keep that star on board?   What’s it worth to you to lose that star to your competitor?

Several developments have occurred all at once. And I worry that HR hasn’t quite kept up in terms of how they will affect how you handle the employees who truly differentiate your business from your competitors.  A) Smart people know that their career belongs to them; that there is no such thing as an organization-based job security; that if they indeed to prosper, they have to make a name for themselves.  Professional celebrity is a transferrable asset. B) Great employees know that great customer service is the thing.  And, bringing it all together: C) High performers know that some level of celebrity is essential to branding your company’s contributions to your customers – making it rise supreme in the hearts of your customers over all your competitors.

The question for you is this: Can you handle that? If you can't, it's going to hurt big when you show the world that your company doesn't appreciate what it has.

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Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at

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