Creating Rock Stars

Circus at the Taste of Chicago You know what’s better than hiring rock stars? Creating your own.

This entry is the third entry of a three-part series on rock stars.

The Rock Star Series

Creating rock stars is definitely possible. And cheaper. Also, internally-grown rock stars tend to be more loyal than those from the outside, since they appreciate the investment you’ve made in their careers. Hiring outsiders can cause dissatisfaction amongst the current staff too. In short, it is much better to grow your own rock stars than to hire them.

Once you know how to do this, you can replicate the formula throughout your organization. So instead of giving you fish, now I’m going to teach you how to fish.

Hire individuals with potential
There are several elements hiring managers typically seek: current skills, relevant work experience, personality fit, and innate talents. When hiring individuals with the potential to become rock stars, emphasize innate talents & personality fit and deemphasize current skills & relevant work experience. A talent is an aptitude with which an individual is born. Look for a talent that is relevant to your role. The right personality fit includes not only a cultural team fit, but an eagerness & ability to learn, a comfortability with making mistakes, a passion for the work, a strong sense of integrity, and the inclination to be proactive and take initiative. Skills & experience can be gained later. Note that there’s a slight bias towards younger employees here, but I’ve always been a believer that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Identify good teachers and mentors
Good teachers and mentors are hard to find, perhaps just as hard as finding rock stars. Also, rock stars don’t necessarily make good teachers, and vice versa. A good teacher is someone who can break down the fundamentals in a meaningful & digestible way, apply those concepts into actionable & real-world situations, and understand each student well enough to educate them in their particular learning styles. Teachers should also have enough subject competency that the students respect their knowledge. If such individuals don’t exist, ask for volunteers amongst your rock stars and send them to training on how to be effective mentors. Self-motivated individuals make the best mentors.
Offer lots of training opportunities
If you don’t have good teachers on staff, seek out group training opportunities outside of your organization. Not all workshops & seminars are created equal, so it will take some effort to find the good ones. The effort will be worth it though. Workshops & seminars aren’t the only options. In the software development world, paired programming, code reviews, and project post mortems can also be extremely helpful. One more tip: asking someone to hold a workshop can also be an effective training tool for that person. Sometimes, the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else.
Set up a mentorship program
While you seek out group training opportunities, establish a mentorship program with your willing & able mentors. Personally, I think formal mentorship programs aren’t organic enough to grow rock stars. They do a fair job transferring skills, but don’t imbue apprentices with rock star habits and mental models. For that, you need something with deeper involvement. Proximity, exposure, and having someone officially in the role of the mentor is important. In the software development world, paired programming can do this, as can shadowing and being placed on the same projects. Mentors & apprentices should have some kind of regular dialogue, though I’m undecided about the effectiveness of structured lesson plans and goals. Feedback from both parties is essential, however, so the mentoring relationship can grow.
Cultivate a culture of learning
Your apprentices need time to learn the right chords and practice their arpeggios before they can become full-fledged rock stars. This requires an environment that encourages education, such as tolerating mistakes, celebrating achievements, sharing lessons learned, and solving problems collaboratively. Learning is and should be fun; if your fledglings are enjoying their apprenticeships, they’ll become masters very soon. Books like The Fifth Discipline can also offer more tips from an organizational standpoint.

How do you create rock stars in your organization?

The Rock Star Series

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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