in People Management ~ read.

Superstar employees

Today, I am celebrating the 16th anniversary of my first job. As of today,  I have been working for over a decade and a half  and have been managing people for 13 of those 16 years.

Being a manager who has held titles of varying levels of seniority at 6 different companies based in at least 3 different countries, I have had the privilege of managing a pretty diverse lot of people in my career.

Managers come in different "builds" and I have always been that manager who was obsessed with outcomes to a fault.

Looking back, I can say that the teams I managed were awesome because they all delivered on outcomes: From having managed a team that delivered double-digit revenue growth through a period of nationwide financial crisis to managing teams that crushed targets day in and day out at tech startups, I've always rallied the teams I managed behind outcomes.

Julie Zhuo said it best:

"I used to think there was some long checklist of manager qualities to determine whether a manager was great. Are they well-regarded? Strategic? Good at presenting? Can they knock out 20 important tasks in a day? Break up a fight? Mediate a peace treaty? Etc. etc.

I’m not going to say those things aren’t good traits to have, but the litmus test of a successful manager is quite simple: their team is awesome. Their team kills it on outcomes.
What does this mean?

You can be the hardworkingest, smartest, most well-liked manager in the world, but if your team has 20 people and a reputation for mediocrity, then I’m sorry but there’s not a world where you can be considered a “great” manager

While I put my obsession with results front and center in my leadership, and while I have a lot of case study-worthy marketing achievements under my belt; if you ask me what I am proudest of as a leader, my answer wouldn't have anything to do with "results" in the traditional sense.

Instead, I will tell you that I am proudest of the team members I managed in the past who went on to become amazing leaders themselves or just became successful people in general.

There is a visceral high and a profound sense of fulfillment that comes with achieving business goals, but even those are easily overshadowed by the intensity of the sense of pride I feel whenever I see a former team member succeed.

My heart swells with pride whenever a former report tells me how he attributes his success to the discipline and frameworks he developed while working within a team I managed.

I think people who say "Choose a boss, not a job" are delusional

When I think about the people I managed who went on to see great success– as managers within an organization themselves or as entrepreneurs– I struggle to find any commonality between them in terms of how I managed them. I manage everyone the same way– with an uncompromising focus on outcomes– and this approach leaves very little in the way of nurturing.

Don't get me wrong, I did develop deep friendships with a lot of the people I managed and continue to hang out with them even after we have all moved on to do different things, it's just that I never believed that people should outsource the responsibility of their personal and career development to their bosses.

I think people who say "Choose a boss, not a job" are delusional.

I also think this image which has become popular on social media only resonates with people who are delusional:

I've thought long and hard about whether or not there is commonality among the people I managed who did end up being successful and I  came to the conclusion that if it isn't "nurture", it is definitely "nature."

I believe that people who go on to succeed as employees (and eventually as entrepreneurs) share 4 intrinsic traits:

  1. They hold themselves personally accountable for their own career growth
  2. They recognize that "experience" is a real thing
  3. They don't have an "if only" mentality
  4. They prioritize the pursuit of mastery over "passion"

I use the word "intrinsic" loosely here because, while these traits are not impossible for people to pick up as they go through their careers, the team members I managed who went on to become successful typically manifested these very early on which has me convinced that they've always had it.

Over the years, I have gotten very good at identifying people who have the potential to become superstars using these traits as a guide. In fact, I have gotten so good at it that I feel confident with pushing all my chips towards these prospects in terms of allocating time and money to develop them– and I end up being right about them an overwhelming majority of the time.

They hold themselves personally accountable for their own career growth

Employees with superstar potential have an insatiable learning appetite. They learn while on the job and when they're off it.

These people constantly sharpen their saws and demonstrate an unwavering commitment to honing their craft--never relinquishing the accountability for their career and personal development to the company.

A good manifestation of this trait is when a team member buys the occasional business book, enrolls for that online course or pays for that professional certification out of pocket.

Employees with superstar potential don't let small obstacles like the lack of a training budget get in the way of their personal growth. They are hopped up on the high they get from the constant pursuit of getting better at their craft. They recognize that the skills they develop and the knowledge they acquire will make them more valuable and employable long after they've moved on from the company. As such, they invest in themselves and hold themselves personally accountable for their career growth and make sure they are always ahead of the curve.

They recognize that "experience" is a real thing

Thanks to the internet, younger people entering the workforce have the distinct advantage of having knowledge exponentially more accessible to them. Digital natives also enjoy the fruits of the rapid innovation in pedagogy from recent years which offers a more diverse set of ways from which they could choose to learn.

From being able to pick up a digital copy of every book ever published, to signing up for MOOCs, younger people have an undeniable edge over those who first found work before the internet age. The problem is that the latter typically become the first managers of the former.

On one hand, it's great that younger people have all this access to knowledge--if they are voracious learners they are most likely well-read, passionate and typically self-sufficient.

On the other hand, the side effect of all this is hubris.

The media perpetuates the myth of the older, experienced managers depicted as "dinosaurs"– a myth rife with stories about scruffy-looking college kids who end up becoming Silicon Valley pirates and putting up Billion-Dollar companies by disrupting the incumbents ran by old farts in suits.

I have managed people who refuse to toe the line because all the business books and blog posts they've read deluded them to believe an overly-idealistic caricature they constructed in their head of how a company should function.

"This is not how Andy Grove would handle it."  

"I read from a LinkedIn article that bad bosses see their position as a means to do less work. My boss delegates everything to me so he must be a bad boss."

Well guess what, asshole, you are working at a small digital marketing agency in 2019, not at a company that manufactures semiconductors in the 1970's. There are unique and nuanced business challenges that can't be addressed by blanket management principles.

Potential superstars, while being voracious learners, also understand that learning theory alone is next to useless and the best kinds of lessons are those tempered by experience.

They have strong opinions which they hold weakly and possess huge amounts of humility that allows them to respect experience and realize that they can learn a lot from people who have a lot of it.

They understand that managers are paid for the quality of their decisions--something heavily driven by experience--and as such, potential superstars learn when to lead, when to follow and when to get the fuck out of the way.

Managers are taught to hire people who are "better than them." This is sound advice and I agree with it. Managers should definitely look to hire people who, with the proper training and enough experience would turn out to be competent enough to succeed them and even be better than them. What is comical is that there are people  literally on their first jobs who believe that they know how to run the business better than their managers who have decades worth of experience under their belt.

They don't have an "if only" mentality

Employees who have superstar potential have their feet firmly-planted in reality. They don't need for things to be a certain way and they never engage in wishful thinking. They celebrate their successes but also take accountability for every facet of their failures.

Similar to how potential superstars do not have an overly-idealistic caricature of how a company should work in their head--caricatures that are typically pieced together from a collection of quotes from books written by their favorite thought leader--potential superstars don't have an "if only" mentality. They never say shit like:

  • "If only things are a certain way, I can thrive"
  • "If only I had [X], I would have succeeded"
  • "If only my manager gave me more praise, I would feel better about working here"

Instead, they are quick to own up to their failures, act to correct them and transition quickly to chalking up the failure to experience and learning as much as they can from it.

They don't wait for circumstances to be favorable to them to succeed, they create the conditions to succeed.

Superstars are also hyper-aware of the company's footing and are honest about their compatibility with it. Companies and its leaders can either be in a wartime footing or could be operating in peacetime.

If a company is on a wartime footing, superstars don't expect the company to prioritize fun morale-building activities nor do they expect its leaders to be chipper, nurturing spirit guides who give hugs and pats on the back and show them magical visions of the wonderful career path the company has carved out for them.

Fuck that.

Superstars know that they'll have plenty of time for that later. For now, they know that they need to focus on making sure they do whatever the company asks them to do--sometimes being yelled at every step of the way--because they understand that their failure can spell death for the company.

Choice cuts from Ben Horowitz:

The Peacetime CEO sets big, hairy audacious goals. The Wartime CEO is too busy fighting the enemy to read management books written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand.
The Peacetime CEO trains her employees to ensure satisfaction and career development. The Wartime CEO trains her employees so they don’t get their ass shot off in the battle
The Peacetime CEO does not raise her voice. The Wartime CEO rarely speaks in a normal tone.

Superstars understand that all of these are necessary and are honest about whether or not they can handle it. They gracefully see themselves out the door if they conclude that they couldn't.

They prioritize the pursuit of mastery over "passion"

Cal Newport said that the popular advice that you should “follow your passion” is counterproductive in the sense that it will likely reduce the probability that you would end up loving your work.

I believe him because:

  1. people typically don’t have a clear idea of what passion to follow. This is especially true for younger people on their first jobs. To this demographic, the advice to “follow your passion” is close to useless because they, in all likelihood don't know what their passionate about yet.
  2. There is no concrete evidence that matching your job to a pre-existing interest makes you more likely to find that work satisfying.

    What we do know is that mastery leads people to enjoy their work to a point where they eventually become passionate about it.

Passion is a byproduct of competence. Superstar employees know that filing TPS reports isn't exactly their passion, but because they are hardwired to strive to become the best at everything they do, they become master TPS report filers and ultimately become passionate about the art of TPS report filing.

Superstars understand this and do not make the mistake of putting the cart before the horse.

On the other hand, mediocre employees always whine about how they lack motivation because what they're doing isn't really their passion. These employees coast from paycheck to paycheck doing the absolute bare minimum until they eventually just give up or the company eases them out.

BONUS: They have an Iron Chin

Because superstar employees are voracious learners, they frame things as learning opportunities more than normal employees do.

They see feedback as a massive learning opportunity and understand that feedback comes in different flavors--even in flavors that are less palatable than the delivery prescribed by most management best practices.

They understand that, especially if they are working for a company on a wartime footing, that adages like "praise publicly and criticize privately" aren't always possible.

They don't take emotionally charged feedback from their managers or colleagues personally no matter how harsh or pointed they are. Instead, they see such feedback for what they are– honest, albeit brutal feedback from people who care about winning more than anything else.

Superstars are challenged by these types of feedback when lesser employees whine and cry foul over their ruffled feelings and damaged egos.