Leading Software PeopleLeadership & Management

Rock Stars vs. Superstars

4 minute read

Rock Stars vs. Superstars

tl;dr - You need a good mix of growth trajectory and ambition in your team. Keep the reliable rock stars on your team happy by offering them the same pay and respect given the fast-growing superstars offered more responsibility and promotions.

According to Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, there are two types of “stars” that you want to build your team around. Rock stars and superstars.

Rock stars are literally the “rocks” of your team. They’re reliable and aren’t really looking to move upward and onward. They’re not interested in a new role or additional responsibility. They will continue to happily do their job at a high level as long as you don’t screw things up for them. It is a common mistake to perceive rock stars as lacking ambition or drive, but in reality they’re often simply at a particular point in their personal life or career.

As people who worked our way into management, we have a natural desire for promotion and responsibility. At times it can be hard for us to understand rock stars. That’s OK. Just understand this: rock stars help drive excellence and stability within your team. They are consistent, dependable, and do great work. They set the standard for new team members and help teach them the ropes. And they’ll be content doing that same thing for years.

Superstars, on the other hand, are looking for the next big challenge. These ambitious types are a force of growth within your team, challenging the status quo and pushing boundaries. Superstars have a steep career trajectory, and because of their drive for added responsibility, will often not be with your team for very long.

An important thing to note is that employees can move in and out of either category. Superstars can turn into rock stars and vice versa.

In the case of a superstar becoming a rock star, it could be they just had a child and want to spend more time at home, or that they’re taking care of an ill relative. Or maybe they’re focusing on their photography business.

Rock stars and superstars are equally capable of great work. The major distinction is in their desired growth trajectory.

Different growth for different folks

In order to build a well-rounded team, you need both rock stars and superstars. In order to keep them happy and engaged, you’ll need to offer different growth opportunities.

For rock stars, don’t jump to promote them. Depending on their life situation, they may have some really valid reasons to not want a promotion. According to Scott:

“What they need is to be able to deepen that expertise. They often have spent years accumulating some expertise and they’re often eager to share it with others…. So you can set them up as a guru who teaches others and give them the time and space to teach others because they often love teaching. And these are the people who are going to help those on your team doing good but not great work become great.”

Work to avoid a promotion-obsessed culture. When the culture of your organization is focused on promotions, rock stars will feel unnecessary pressure to pretend they’re superstars. They may feel ashamed or have a sense of failure for wanting to stay in their role. You should make sure that the rock stars are respected (and compensated) as much as the superstars are. Pay out salary and bonuses equally, and remember to praise rock stars as much as their superstar counterparts.

For superstars, offer them bigger challenges. Encourage them to think big and be a force of change. Make sure you don’t squash their ideas.

And when it comes time to promote, don’t confuse management with growth. Many superstars don’t want to manage people, especially within engineering. Offer promotion paths for individual contributors and for people managers. Don’t force people into managing others simply because they want to move up. Create some viable alternatives.

Oh yeah, one last thing—be sure to have a succession plan in place for your superstars. They are on such a steep growth trajectory that they typically don’t stay on your team for long.

A Balanced Team

Employees in rock star mode and superstar mode are both extremely valuable to your team. They are “stars” after all. Take a look at your team and try to discern who is in rock star mode and who is in superstar mode. Once you’ve identified the mode of each employee, build growth plans for them. Look for opportunities for superstars to take on new challenges, and for rock stars to deepen their expertise.

Remember, don’t look down at rock stars. Learn to grow and incentivize people in each mode so you maintain a high-performing, balanced, and happy team.


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