I wrote about high performance in sport vs. business in my last post and promised I would follow up on talking about how to manage superstars. Superstars are exceptional performers, a long way down the tail of the power-law curve that shows the distribution of performance across skill set in question (playing football, writing code or selling houses etc.).

Superstars perform many times better than average members of the same profession. This is not always easy to ascertain and may seem unwarranted based on the measures available (e.g. number of acting awards won vs. money earned by movies they appear in). The exact nature of the measure and its suitability in comparing people is not the point, though. The fact is that performance does vary enormously along a power-law curve.

So if you can accept that there are always superstars in each profession and if you can see that their exceptional performance is of value, then the question is how do you attract and manage superstars in your organisation?

This is where it gets rather tricky. Superstars usually know that they are exceptional and organisations and their internal processes, policies and procedures are designed with the average in mind. In short, in all likelihood your superstar will tend to clash not just with other people on the team, but also with the whole framework of the organisation. To manage them successfully usually someone higher up the hierarchy needs to champion them and protect them from those who actively re-create the culture and norms and who want everyone to fit in.

This is the essential tension in managing superstars – organisations are designed to protect the norms, processes and behaviours that keep everyone safe and average. Superstars usually have little time for such norms, processes and behaviours and want to operate outside the approved framework to make full use of their unique talent.

So what can you do to allow a superstar to work their magic? First, you need to recognise the difference in performance between them and the rest of your people. A forced ranking system with a 5-level scale can’t do that. You probably can’t do it either, because we can’t tell by how much someone else is more competent than us. So you need a measure (which may not be perfect) that will tell you. For example, a superstar programmer can 10 times more productive in writing code than an average programmer.

Next, you need to ask them what they need to work effectively, which may be the opposite of what everyone else gets – office vs. open plan, no team vs. part of team, personal assistant vs. no support etc. In short, you will have to create a different set of rules for them, which will give rise to complaints that you will have to deal with.

You also need to be prepared to defend them against the forces that want them to fit into the norm – compliance related functions and activities. These make up 20% of all resources in large Australian organisations today, so this is not an easy task. If you can’t remove the compliance burden from them, you will reduce their productivity disproportionally compared to an average performer – your 10 times more productive programmer may drop down to just 3 times.

Further, you need to deal with the inevitable friction they generate with others who are ‘just doing their job’. They will step on toes and sometimes behave inappropriately. It will be up to you to defend them and set appropriate boundaries at the same time. In short, they will create a significant overhead for you as their ‘protector’ or manager. Quite frequently, you will also have to keep them entertained in-between spells of working their magic.

We see this pattern quite frequently and very few managers are prepared to do this for any length of time. In a recent case we coached a superstar who was protected by the MD, but loathed by pretty much everyone else. He was (mis)fitted into a team he didn’t need and didn’t belong in. He reported to a CFO who didn’t know what to do with him and offloaded him back into the business. Yet he was the only person who could find $50m in a couple of days when the company needed it to improve quarterly results…

I guess you can tell from the preceding paragraphs that you would need a pretty good reason to keep a superstar around and create the environment that allows them to work at full productivity. So my advice would be to think carefully if you are in a situation when the return justifies the investment. Quite often, such situations only arise temporarily based on a compelling need or opportunity.