The Muselet #35: Superstars, Rockstars and Rocketstars

Some people in my team just seem happy doing what they’re doing. They don’t seem to have the ambition to climb the ladder. They just do their work and do it well. Is that ok?

Even though it is not the book’s main topic, my most referenced idea from Kim Scott’s excellent Radical Candor is the concept of rockstars and superstars (presented in the introduction, page xxiv):

A conversation I had with one of Apple’s leaders helped me see a critical flaw in my approach to building teams earlier in my career. I’d always focused on the people most likely to be promoted. I assumed that was how it had to be at a growth company. Then a leader at Apple pointed out to me that all teams need stability as well as growth to function properly; nothing works well if everyone is gunning for the next promotion.

She called the people on her team who got exceptional results but who were on a more gradual growth trajectory “rock stars” because they were like the Rock of Gibraltar on her team. These people loved their work and were world-class at it, but they didn’t want her job or to be Steve Jobs. They were happy where they were.

The people who were on a steeper growth trajectory—the ones who’d go crazy if they were still doing the same job in a year—she called “superstars.” They were the source of growth on any team. She was explicit about needing a balance of both.

(Edited slightly and emphasis added for clarity.)

So, to answer the question we started with: yes. Yes, it’s ok to have team members who are not at a high-paced career trajectory. In fact it’s desirable, because (1) having a stable core in your team is valuable, and (2) the space at the top is limited anyway. 

But I don’t believe that being either a superstar or a rockstar is necessarily an inherent character trait. It can evolve over time. I know people who seem born (or nurtured from early age) to be superstars. Others that were superstars early on in their career and then slowed down a bit and became rockstars. And yet others that seem to have been rockstars from birth.

People may “switch modes” for various reasons. Perhaps because of the time horizon, perhaps because they just want to truly master something. Perhaps it’s for personal reasons, they became a parent and want to put their energy there for a while. Then, later they may want to pick up the pace again. 

What I think is really great about the superstar and rockstar terminology is that they’re both equally positive. There’s no ranking there. A superstar isn’t better than a rockstar nor vice versa — and that’s exactly the point. You need both. You need the superstars for the growth. You need the rockstars for the solid foundation. 

There is one more type I found to exist: the rocketstar, and this one is a bit less desirable.

Rocketstars are the hyper-ambitious versions of the superstar. The unsustainable kind. People in this mode are at risk of skipping too many steps and hitting the roof too quickly. The moment they’re about to take their next step, they’re already looking what’s next. 

I’ve been in this mode myself in the past, and I’ve seen others in this mode as well. Whereas it’s desirable to have rockstars and superstars in your team, rocketstars will need recalibration or you will lose them. Personal growth is all good, but there’s a limit to how much you can absorb. Certain things just need time, rinsing and repeating, experience. Sometimes it’s good to stick to things a bit longer, to see patterns in more places, rather than to jump to the next thing right away. Therefore, rocketstars need to be slowed down to good old superstar levels.

However, I found this is achievable. By pointing out the risks. By making them see what they do not yet know and will need to learn. And sometimes by letting them trip up completely, as a kind of reality check. Mean, perhaps, but effective.