How to Train Your Rock Star in 11 Easy Steps

2015-06-11 21.03.34Congratulations to Julia Bucchianeri!  She recently won the Striker Award, which honors the top young PR person in New England. This is no small feat, as the award attracts a lot of attention. Just being good at your job isn’t enough to win.

I’ve been honored to work with and help train two people who have won the Striker Award in the past three years. Alex Parks, who worked with us at Fresh Ground, was the winner in 2013.

Working with rock stars, however, isn’t as simple as it looks. Yes they elevate your work and push everyone around them, but they also chafe at restrictions and always demand new challenges. Managing them means having a willingness to teach, a desire to learn, a bit of humility and a lot of flexibility.

  1. Set Clear Expectations — When employees join HB we walk through an onboarding process that clearly lays out how we do things and what their role will be in helping all of us achieve success. Even though we’re relatively flat, everyone on the team needs to understand where they fit in and what it will take to get them to the next level.
  2. Fit the job to the person — Yes, we have positions to fill and roles to play, but as managers we need to build in enough flexibility to let people grow in ways that make sense for them. For Julia this means letting her take on additional projects like taking a lead role in new business or even creating the Chief Puppy Officer role.
  3. Don’t do, teach — Rock stars need to learn new things constantly or they stagnate. When deadlines loom and clients call, it’s easy just to do the job yourself. You know the job will get done and the client will be happy. Unfortunately you just lost an opportunity to teach. Teaching opportunities present themselves every day, so use them.
  4. Provide honest feedback — Rock stars can see through your bullshit. They know when you’re being nice and when you’re doing “sandwich” praise. That kind of thing works great when you’re coaching 10-year-old soccer players, but rock stars want to know where they stand. If they screw up, tell them. Hold them accountable. If their writing needs editing, do it but don’t try to soften it too much. That doesn’t mean you’re obnoxious and mean about it, but be direct and clear. They’ll rise to the expectations you set.
  5. Tell them “No” — Rock stars want to do it all. Every time a manager hands out tasks, the rockstar will have their hand up to take on more work. As managers we think “Oh, if they’re volunteering they must have the time to do it,” but that’s not always the case. They’re just so eager to take on work that they’ll overload themselves. It’s up to us to monitor them and tell them that they can’t have a task if their workload seems too heavy.
  6. Show them your humanity — We’re all flawed. We all have weaknesses. Rock stars can see yours, so if you’re trying to pretend to be perfect you’re just going to lose their respect. Admit when you don’t know something, use them to help you learn and grow. They need to know that it’s OK to fail.
  7. Let them fail — This is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to do, but also the most important. They need to fail. Just as their managers aren’t perfect, they aren’t perfect either. If they’re not failing, they’re not pushing themselves hard enough.
  8. Praise in public, criticize in private — I learned this while working at Schwartz many years ago. The best managers used it all the time, the worst reversed it. This isn’t just about the big things, it’s about the little things. Praise them for doing a great job at a meeting or getting a hit. As managers we want to praise a team as a whole for the work it does, and that’s important. But it’s also important to call out the individual contributions as well. If you have criticisms, do that in private, preferably in person, never in a large meeting and rarely by email.
  9. Let them grow, let them go — This is the most emotionally difficult part, but sometimes the rock stars need to move on to new challenges. We always want them to stay with us, but if they’re rock stars they need to find the next mountain, and as a small business often those mountains lie elsewhere. Don’t hold them back, don’t make them feel bad about their decision, praise them, help them, and celebrate their departure.
  10. Be a mentor for life — When an employee leaves your role shifts slightly from boss and mentor to mentor and friend. You no longer control their salary and their fate, but they still need you, and you need them more than ever. I still meet with Alex regularly, we talk on the phone and I learn quite a bit from his continued experience. I just hope he can continue to learn from me.
  11. Always be recruiting — Of course, the other side of this is to always be on the lookout for new people, especially those who can go up and above. That’s why an internship program is so important to a company’s growth. It’s not about having free labor, but about challenging young minds and testing if they’re ready for the workforce. If you’re lucky, you may even find another rock star.

Remember, rock stars don’t always win awards, sometimes they stay in the background, but they still need all the same praise, training and attention.



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Boston's Mower office is a full-service technology marketing, PR and branding agency. Our B2B stories illustrate projects and campaigns in a variety of markets and media that range from local impact in Boston and New England to global proportions.

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