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How to find Superstars in your team

Business leaders, of a family business or otherwise, are always on the lookout for superstars in their team.  Employees with the mettle to become future leaders and even the future CEO of the business.  But identifying these future leaders is difficult.  Nurturing future superstars takes time and effort.  So, you want to be certain when placing people into the ‘superstar’ bucket.  This article looks at how to identify those elusive superstars.

Many businesses find a traditional appraisal system useful in identifying stars.  Each employee is given an agreed set of goals.  These goals are split into personal development (better communication, team work etc.) and those linked to business performance (sales, accuracy of accounts etc.). Employees are periodically assessed on these goals.

As good as appraisal systems are, they have one fundamental issue in identifying future leaders.  Most systems measure the ‘What’, rather than the ‘How’.  What Sales did you achieve?  Were the financial statements generated on time?  Did you procure equipment below cost threshold?

Understanding performance on ‘What’ is undoubtedly important.  It can be used as the basis of giving monetary rewards to employees.  Yet, using ‘What’ as the basis of identifying future leaders may not be the best thing to do.  For starters, the most well-defined ‘What’, generally becomes subjective and impressionistic.  For e.g. during an appraisal, an ‘impressive’, politically adept employee might be given credit for sales, s/he had very little input in.  It might work the other way for an employee less adept at gaming the system.  We need a more robust system to judge future leaders.

The answer?  Use the Critical Incident Technique (CIT).  That sounds like some psycho mumbo-jumbo?  Well, it was developed by a psychologist!  Simply put, in the superstar context, CIT is observations of employee’s behaviour in various situations. The objective is to correlate their behaviour to their effectiveness in being a leader.

There are three inputs required for using CIT.

  1. Your direct observations of the employee in a situation. Since there is a fair amount of literature on leadership traits, it’s easy for people to game the system.  They show their best face, when you are looking!  They will present an aura of efficiency and knowledge when they know they are being tested.  And the halo effect does the rest.  Shield yourself from such misuse. Don’t gloss over the routine stuff.
  2. The employees’ narrative of a critical incident. This could be through regular informal interactions with the employee.
  3. Peers and subordinates’ narrative of the employee (future leader) in different situations. This could be done by periodic upward appraisals.  A good leader needs a team.  And if people don’t like him/her, that’s not going to work.

What should you be looking for in the narrative?  Behaviours, not outcomes.  These might differ across businesses.  However, some great common traits to look for include

  • Critical analysis of a problem and finding new, creative solutions. How did they approach the problem? Did they find a better way to achieve the same results?
  • Innovative use of technology and resources at hand. Technology is becoming a larger part of our business.  A future leader needs to understand how to leverage technology to grow the business
  • Doggedness while facing difficult challenges and a never say die attitude. Todays business work in an extremely dynamic environment. Is the employee committed to finding solutions or does the buck get passed?
  • Displaying integrity especially in tough conditions rather than taking the easy way out. This is especially important and is probably the most difficult to be sure of.  One good way is comparing the narrative of the same situation from the employee and their peer/subordinate and your observations

Putting it all together

Use your gut feelings while deciding on which employees are on the superstar shortlist.  Maintain logs of the selected employees of behaviours observed through CIT.  Maintain the log in a format and using a method you are comfortable with.  Over time, you have an invaluable log of consistent behaviours being displayed by your superstar nominees.  Keep giving feedback to them.  You will soon have a smaller list of superstars who you can invest more in.

Closing thoughts

Give up on the idea of being right in all your choices.  Some of those on your superstar shortlist will live up to expectations.  Others, you will wish had not made the list.  But that’s still better than not having any superstars lined up.

It is not only superstars who make a team.  So, don’t forget the rest of the team.  They also need recognition, encouragement and training.  Else, you’ll be left with a bunch of potential leaders without anyone to lead!

How do you identify superstars in your team?  And how do you manage your superstars?  Comment below or write to / call me on or +91-9322737127


  • ASHOK RAO says:

    The best way to identify a superstar is their behaviour and work when you are not in office for a long period of time. I found that some employees took decisions, right or otherwise, whereas others just waited me to come back and avoided the risk of taking any decision at all! The leaders or superstars take decisions and see to it that work is not stalled. It is not a crime to take a wrong decision but not taking any decision is.

    • Sunil Dias says:

      Super point, Ashok! Superstars make decisions. They don’t wait to be told what to do.
      That said, leaders need to support employees who have taken hard (but well-considered) decisions which have not turned out as expected. Superstars thrive in such a culture.
      Thanks for the addition, Ashok!

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