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Grow your own rockstar

I have interviewed hundreds of people, technical and otherwise. I have managed a few as well.

Most interviewers do not realize that there is no “best” candidate on an absolute scale. The rockstar at Google may absolutely fail to fit in at the interviewer’s company.

For most companies, even most start-ups, the rockstar is not interested in the company because the company itself is not a “rockstar”.

  • Do you have Dave McClure or Seth Godin as advisors?
  • Is Reid Hoffman on your board?
  • Are you working on cutting-edge projects?
  • Are you using the latest technology?
  • Are you willing to let the rockstar do things his/her way?

Why would a rockstar be interested in your company? If you don’t know then your company will never attract and retain rockstars.

Look for the budding rockstar

Instead of looking for the proven rockstar (who has 10 offers; all of them better than yours) — create one!

Ask every candidate to bucket their skills into one of these four buckets. For good measure also ask about key “task types” (for example “debugging performance issues” ):

Good at doing Bad at doing
Like to do “Rockstar” Sweet spot
“future rockstars”
Hate to do Short-timer Stay away


Interviewers are told to look for the person in the “Rockstar” bucket. The candidate that is good at what you need and loves to do it. When looking for a brain surgeon, this is the doctor you want fiddling with your gray matter. However, when hiring for other positions you (the company) are asking this talented person to do exactly the same thing that they have already done.

In effect you are asking them to tread water in their career and not grow. The company will have to offer higher salary, huge stock options, or enough “sweet spot” opportunities. Without one of these, it is quite likely that after a few months the new-hire (and you!) will discover that the rockstar has drifted into the “Short-timer” bucket and is now job hunting on the side.

However, in the absence of “sweet spot” opportunities and if the prospects of the company turn south — this “rockstar” is the first to bail. They are good, they know it, and they are heading for greener pastures.


The person is good at the job but they hate to do it. They will do the minimum necessary and no more. Late nights and long hours will quickly be resented. This person is job hunting (or should be). Try to find a “sweet spot” for them fast to take away the pain.

“Stay away”

The person is bad at something and they hate doing it. If you hire this person you are an idiot. Enough said.

“Sweet spot” ( future rockstar )

This is the person to hire. They are bad at the skill but they are motivated to get better because they love doing it. They will stay up late figuring things out. They will think and breathe the technology or the skill and try their damnedest to become that rockstar.

They will be loyal because the company gave them the chance to learn and grow when no one else would.

Best of all the competition for the future rockstars is low. Everyone else is too busy looking for today’s rockstar.

Price of growing rockstars

However, growing rockstars is not cheap.

  • the company must be willing to mentor and guide the future rockstars.
  • Management and the rest of the team must tolerate failure and correct without punishment.
  • Labeling someone an idiot cannot be allowed. (Especially self-labeling) There must be a supportive environment.
  • the company must not have a consensus environment. Everyone is not equal in skills. The budding rockstars must not be deluded into thinking that they are rockstars.
  • Advancement and reward structure that recognizes supporting roles. This encourages others to help mentor the future rockstars.
  • Willingness to fire. Lets face it a company is not a school. There are certain people who will not work out. Fire those to make room to hire more future rockstars. And this includes your current rockstars!
  • Know the difference between “working hard” and “working smart”. Make sure the company rewards “working smart” not “working hard”.
  • Know when the future rockstar is in over their head and rescue them. (which may unfortunately include terminating)

Posted in career, management, starting a company.

2 Responses

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  1. Dave Doolin says

    I’m stealing your table.

    With full credit of course!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. How to change jobs and careers | Just wondering…. linked to this post on March 4, 2011

    […] A while ago I wrote this post about the elusive hunt for “rockstars” […]

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