Written By
Max Brown


Why do we need Rock Stars and Superstars?

The term “rock star” became a Silicon Valley buzz word a few years back, to the point where it became synonymous with the highest performing, most transformative employees across the board.  It became normal for start-ups to proudly proclaim things like “we only hire rock stars” without giving the actual term or that strategy any thought.  In reality, there are different types of stellar employees that help create successful companies with specific tactics for hiring and retaining each one.

Rock Star vs. Superstar

A recent article by First Round Capital defines the terms rock star and superstar with the help of Kim Scott, co-founder of Candor, Inc.  Superstars want rapid growth, upward mobility, and change. Rock stars, on the other hand, aren’t after their boss’ job.  They prefer to put their time and effort into a relentless pursuit of quality output, and they can be “a source of excellence and stability on a team.”  Systemic talent and morale problems can occur when we don’t understand the difference between a stellar individual employee and a rising person who will be a change making leader on the large scale.  As Kim stated, “people in superstar mode want a world they can change.  Those in rock star mode seek a world they can stabilize.  You’ll need both.”  We’ll use this definition to tell our exceptional employees apart, as two types of people who are on the same level but on different paths.

What’s wrong with only recruiting Superstars?

It’s like planning a to build a high rise by hiring 3 architects and no general contractor.  You can have the best plans in the world, and everybody is always improving and iterating on a design, but nothing is actually getting built.  The core value here is to manage people as individuals and help them progress in their career according to their strengths and passion.

This is especially true in the engineering world, where we’ve personally seen the consequences of taking a world class engineer and trying to make them a strategic leader because that’s what everyone thought the next step should be in career progression.  That’s like taking the best general contractor in the world and telling them that they have to become an architect if they want to be considered a superstar.  It’s a different, but equally valuable, skill set.

So, if you expect all of your rock stars to be superstars, they’re not going to be rock stars anymore.  Why? Morale and motivation takes a hit. Because the expectations you communicated to them when you hired them for a rock star role are now fundamentally contrary to the path they need to take to succeed.  And some managers conflate the two, or they assume that every rock star wants to be a superstar, even if there aren’t any open roles for superstars.

When to turn away Superstars.

From a talent acquisition standpoint, when you analyze your needs for current roles, there are times that you might want to turn a superstar away in favor of a rock star.  For instance, if you’re a new startup who needs to quickly and effectively build an MVP, you need some rock stars to do the work to execute on big ideas.  There are also risks if you hire a superstar too soon.  They might become bored because there isn’t a place for them yet, and then they’ll move on to greener pastures.  You may have bottled lightning, but without a constant thunderstorm of growth and change, their spark dissipates.  Both superstars and rock stars are important for successful teams.