How To Handle Rockstar Employees

Conor McGregor, the mixed martial artist, has almost single-handedly moved the UFC into the mainstream. For three years the young fighter from Dublin has dazzled crowds with his wit, fighting skills and a striking ability to predict what will happen in the octagon. He has been the biggest star of UFC, but in recent months the relationship has not been a harmonious one. McGregor has struggled under the notoriously tight control of the UFC. The latest stand-off between the two saw McGregor refusing to attend a scheduled press conference and promotional event. The UFC responded by removing McGregor from UFC 200, and for a while McGregor claimed to have retired. While McGregor has withdrawn his threatened retirement, the situation appears far from over. What is clear is that this is a case of egos getting bruised. McGregor is the rockstar of the UFC. He is the one crowds pay to see, and he has started to think that he is bigger than the UFC. This rockstar syndrome isn’t unique to sport. It frequently occurs in companies as well. Rockstar employees can bring in bring fantastic results, but if you don’t handle them right. They can be a nightmare to manage.

OK, firstly I know what it is like being on both sides of the table. I have been the rockstar employee giving my company a hard time, and I have managed rockstars who have given me a hard time. The problem with rockstars is they typically work really hard. Rockstar employees like McGregor can be tempted to think “Why am I the only person who works this hard?”. That’s not all, they usually create huge results for the company. In Conor McGregor’s mind he goes above and beyond the call of duty to promote fights. He does talk shows, radio, TV; he creates buzz on social media and his unique character is a huge draw for the fans. So when the pendulum swings the other way he expects more grace than others, and not every company will do that.

When a rockstar is making huge revenue for your business, everyone is happy, but this can quickly go wrong. If a company is too heavily reliant on one person to deliver results, the company is only as strong as that individual. So if the rockstar disengages and leaves the company, it can greatly reduce the value of your business, or even put the whole business at risk.
The company is always bigger than the egos that work there. This includes the board members, and even the CEO. When clients choose to work with a company it’s not just the rockstar they deal with. They interact with many parts of the business that are equally as important as the initial sale. So when McGregor says that he has made $400m for the UFC, he is ignoring the symbiotic relationship they both have. He can’t afford to forget that there had to be a UFC for him to gain the fame that he has.

Rockstar employees like Conor McGregor can be great for your business, but they are not bigger than your business. As a manager you should want every employee to reach the same performance level as the rockstar, but still to act as part of your team. For that to happen you must create an environment where every employee can perform at their best, feels appreciated, and makes a valuable contribution. You must inspire your employees and give them the tools they need to succeed.

 

Rockstars take risks

Part of being a rockstar is a refusal to play it safe. Rockstars have big egos, they like to push the limits of possibility and aren’t afraid to take risks. They don’t follow best practices, they create best practice. All the time they are getting results that’s great, but what happens when a rockstar employee fails? Failure is a normal part of life. Every employee gets it wrong sometimes, but when it’s a rockstar employee that slips up they will probably get it wrong in a big way. As their manager you have got to allow that to happen, and make sure that your company is not so dependent on one individual that their failure brings down the company. No-one likes failure, but if your employees are too afraid to take risks then your company is never going to be at the forefront of innovation.

If you want to manage rockstars then you have to deal with their egos. You must put in the effort to keep them focused and engaged with your business, so you can reap the rewards without letting them lose sight of the bigger picture. Here are three key ways you can keep your rockstar employees engaged, and working for the benefit of the whole company.

1. Continual Learning

No-one likes repeating the same tasks over and over. The ability to grow, learn more, and develop new skills is essential for employee motivation yet sadly many managers miss this point. More than 90% of employees learn more when they discover solutions themselves, but on 25% of executives believe that employees learn independently. Find ways to make sure they are constantly challenged. If your rockstar isn’t being challenged they are likely to disengage and look for the challenges they need elsewhere.

One of the biggest turn-offs for rockstar employees are managers who dictate the answers to problems, rather than helping employees to discover the solution for themselves. Any attempt to micro-manage a rockstar is likely to end in disaster, this is what sparked McGregor’s rebellion against the UFC promotional machine. The entire standoff could have been avoided if Dana White had presented McGregor with a choice, or even just the perception of choice. Pushing a rockstar into a corner so that they feel pressured to act in a certain way rarely goes well.

2. Strong Communication

Take time for one-on-one meetings with your rockstar employees. Provide regular feedback on their activities, and be specific. Rockstar employees need to know what they are doing well, and where their performance could be improved. Provide them with enough information so that their positive performance can be replicated, and the negative aspects of their performance improved. It’s important that they understand how their task fits into the wider company context. They may be a great employee, but they are not the whole company. They are part of a wider team, and for a company to be successful everyone needs to understand their role, and work together to achieve success. None of us know what may have been said in private, but what played out in public clearly demonstrated that McGregor and the UFC don’t view their respective positions the same way. McGregor understands that he is a huge draw on any fight card, but he also needs to recognise that without the UFC he wouldn’t be the huge draw that he is. He is popular because he is a part of the UFC machine, not independently of it.

3. Praise (Publicly)

When your rockstar does good work don’t be afraid to commend them publicly. Many managers make the mistake of assuming that rewards should be primarily financial. No employee is going to reject a financial reward but for most rockstars that’s not the motivation that drives them. They want to achieve. They want to make a difference, and by publicly recognising their efforts you are more likely to retain them in your company. Both Dana White and the UFC have publicly recognised McGregor’s talent and appeal, but he clearly feels this doesn’t goes far enough. He is refusing back down, and continues to test his position. The UFC will need to find a compromise solution if they want to move forward.
Finally, you have to work on your own performance. Leading an organisation with one or more rockstars isn’t easy. If you want an easy life look for a company with mediocre employees that is prepared to tread-water forever. Rockstar employees encourage those around them to constantly improve their own performance level. That includes their managers. Learning to manage rockstars effectively should keep you at the top of your game, and ready for anything.

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