Retain your rock stars

Departments - Straight Talk | Honest insights from an IGC expert

Identify high-performing staff, cultivate their skills and give them a sense of purpose to keep them on the team.

June 3, 2022

Embrace ambitious team members and fuel their enthusiasm by offering meaningful responsibilities and opportunities to grow.
Photo © Drobot Dean | Adobe Stock

One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a business owner or manager is to miss the signs you’ve got a rock star employee on your hands. Actually, the bigger mistake is to know you’ve got a rock star but lose them because you didn’t know how, or put in the effort, to make the most of their energy and talents. In today’s labor market no one, and I mean no one, can afford to ignore high-performing team members.

Rock star employees can fall into various categories, in my experience. They can be brand new to the job market with little to no experience but clearly present a charismatic personality and energetic drive. They might not have any idea what they are doing yet, but they will throw themselves headfirst into any task you give them. They may be someone with 10 years of experience under their belt who is success-oriented and confident, but hasn’t been given the right outlet to manifest their full potential or goals. Or they may be a highly qualified and very experienced individual who makes crucial and meaningful contributions to your organization. And, of course, there are many varying degrees in between.

What all these employees share, at their varying degrees of knowledge and experience, are drive and potential. These are the employees who tend to compete with themselves versus others, give 110% on every task, and tend to outpace your other employees. Too often, though, these rock stars feel unrecognized, unappreciated and underutilized. Eventually, they get frustrated at the lack of opportunity and growth potential or positive recognition, and give up and move on. If their leaving comes as a surprise to you, you’ve likely been asleep at the wheel as the owner or manager.

Don’t be intimidated by talent

Do you have an employee who acts like they own the joint? Does that sort of irritate you? It really shouldn’t. I get it; hard drivers who show up with a sense of ownership can make you, as the owner, feel a little defensive. It’s your business and you want to feel in control. Giving up control to a high-performing employee can be a bit scary. Too often, owners or managers resist including these types of “own it” employees by shutting them out and not including them in key meetings or decisions. Even worse, these potential rock stars often have their ideas shut down or ridiculed — not because the ideas are bad, but because they make the powers-that-be feel uncomfortable and insecure.

Defensive behavior on the part of management then ends up creating a toxic and adversarial environment … for no good reason. Here’s the deal: high-level performers are the lifeblood of your business and they’re not a threat to you unless you make them a threat by responding to their initiative with fear and insecurity. If you do the latter, you’ll just end up hurting the rest of your staff and your business, and cause them to leave you for a better opportunity. And in today’s economy, that’s the real threat.

The thing to realize about extremely productive employees who act with a sense of ownership is that nine times out of 10 it’s not you they are competing with or gunning for — it’s themselves. Own-it employees will often describe themselves as being in competition with themselves to produce the best results they can. It’s your job to figure out how to leverage that type of work personality.

Offer opportunities

It’s important to know that not all rock stars are smooth around the edges. Many high performers don’t yet have the experience or wisdom to know how best to direct their talents and energy. They may have loads of charisma and fill up a room with their presence, but they may need help from you to best guide and direct their energy to both get the best results and contribute to a healthy company culture.

When it comes to managing a star employee, it typically comes down to a balancing act between offering enough work and challenges to keep them running at their best top speed, but not so much that they end up burning out (trust me, they will). Star employees also typically need a fair amount of autonomy. They want you to point them in the right direction, but they don’t want to be micromanaged along the way.

Offer opportunities for star employees to keep learning new skills whilst keeping existing ones well-honed. As skilled as they may already be, star performers are typically growth-focused and will always need a new challenge or goal to keep them positively engaged. Provide positive feedback — but not too much. It’s more important that they feel included in decision-making activities, which translates to positive feedback. Allow them to put their sense of ownership to good use to have a positive influence on your company.

Photo © Andrii Yalanskyi | Adobe Stock

Take care, however, not to focus too much of your energy on a star performer at the expense of the rest of your team. If your other staff feels you are showing too much obvious favoritism beyond what would be appropriate positive feedback and assignments, you can brew a sense of resentment within your team.

Rock star employees are both a blessing and a management challenge. The key is to acknowledge someone’s drive and strengths, then check your own response to their personality. If you feel triggered or defensive, that’s a signal you’ve got a potential star employee on your hands. Take a deep breath and think about how you could turn that fear into a terrific opportunity for both your employee and your business.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural and business consulting, as well as product development and branding for green industry companies. She is also a horticulture instructor, industry writer and book author. Find out more at