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  • Sam Decker

The 5 Stars of a “Rockstar” Employee

Obviously you want to be a rockstar and you want to hire a rockstar. So what does a rockstar look like? How do you interview for them?

In my career I’ve worked with thousands of people, interviewed hundreds, and hired over a couple hundred people. A minority of these folks (say 10%) were rockstars. There's 10% I’d never hire or want to work with. And the rest are in the middle.  From my perspective, these are the characteristics I saw in the top 10% whom I’d be honored to work with anytime. The 5 stars of a rockstar…

1)    Initiative

To me, maybe because I see what entrepreneurialism and change leadership can do for an organization, this is the most important characteristic. I’ve posted on this before with my 12 career tips, about taking initiative outside your "triangle" and taking bigger risks.

Rockstars must have initiative because someday they will call the shots, and as such they need to be trusted to uncover what needs to be done; to identify opportunities, problems, and move teams to accomplish things. If you take initiative as a contributor, you would likely take initiative as a leader.

Why do executives like initiators? Assume for a second that management doesn’t know everything; and assume they know that, even if they won’t tell you! They have a wide angle lens on the organization, but you bring a unique perspective. The best ideas that have changed organizations have come from non-executives. If people ‘just did their job’ innovation would stifle. Without change, without ideas, there’s only one direction. Good managers know this and they look for people who come up with and execute new ideas. Plus, initiators (and executors) set a great tone for the culture and a bar for others to rise.

When interviewing, how do you look for initiative? Look for extracurricular activities in the past. Ask about initiatives they came up with and executed. Ask about the biggest contributions they’ve made to their organization. Ask what they’ve done to further their development (initiative for themselves).

2)    Integrity

Ok, I guess this list isn’t in a specific rank order, because this one belongs at the top too. I wrote on this before too, on why integrity is so important and sustaining integrity in an organization.

Integrity means more than honesty, at least to me. It means following through on promises, hard work, ‘honest’ work, diligence, and perseverance.  It means being true to yourself and your full potential, which means doing excellent work. It means no politics, doing what’s right for the organization above all else, and being straightforward in your dealings. It means transparency, openness, and actions are aligned with motivations. In short, it’s about character.

Want a good example of integrity? Read How to Live Rich.

Of course there are smart, hard working, ‘drive for results’ types with integrity gaps, and another manager may still call them ‘rockstars’. Not me. Watch out for those managers too, because low integrity folks tend to attract each other. They’re perfect for each other…until one of them burns the other or the company!

How do you interview for integrity? This is a tough one. For me it’s a ‘thin slice’ thing…I gauge it in the first few minutes of conversation. But then I test my judgment with references, questions about how they resolve conflict, what they’ve done when over-committing, what their weaknesses are, and how they dealt with difficult managers or co-workers. I ask about their passion, why they want to be here, why they are leaving, and ask for stories of how others have treated them poorly.

3)    Execution Jack Welch said people tend to make strategy too complicated, and I tend to agree. He suggests, “Set a direction and execute like hell!” I value execution (and emotional intelligence) over IQ any day. I believe a team of generally competent executors will outperform a group of intellectuals any day…at least in business, not in Jeapardy or GMAT scores.

I’ll give you an example. At Dell I was surrounded by MBAs from top 10 schools. I was running a multi-billion dollar ecommerce site looking for a Web Producer who would manage the most important part of the site. I could have hired a top MBA, but on a recommendation from an employee I interviewed a candidate who had never bought online and didn’t have a computer at home. She was going to evening MBA school at a local university (not a top school). From her references and previous results I could tell she was hungry (initiative), curious (initiative), generally competent (strategic agility), and understood metrics. Long story short, I hired her and she was the best Web Producer Dell ever had (as long as I was there). She was curious, analyzed the site and found new merchandising ideas based on data. She took initiative to execute tests and was proactive in executing across 5 cross-functional groups to accomplish more than anyone I’ve seen since. She was a rockstar who helped us quadruple online conversion in 4 years.

How do you interview for execution? Ask how their performance was managed in the past. What measures and accountability existed? How did they hold others accountable and drive project forward? How do they stretch themselves or their team? What’s something they accomplished last year that surprised them?

4)    Strategic Agility

This is one term I’m using from my Dell days, and it was one of the most ambiguous and mysterious for employees. “Strategic Agility”…some didn’t know how to define the two words by themselves, let alone together! And I’m using the ambiguous term to underscore the definition.

Another way of saying this is “wide angle competence”. Can you see a situation from multiple perspectives? Can you put yourself in the customer’s shoes for this situation? Or what would the competitor do in that situation? This is the ability to solve problems with broad proficiency and perspective of how to get it done and understand unforeseen consequences. It’s putting any detail in the larger context of people, process, technology and your business model. It’s formulating ‘what ifs’ and ‘if thens’, and understand in any situation what will impact the business and how. How do you interview for this? Ask about why Southwest succeeds where Delta fails? Ask what they read to improve their strategic competency. Ask about their favorite classes in school and why. Ask about an initiative they led and how that impacted the business. What was the most complex strategic initiative they’ve led? Ask about times where they’ve been put in jobs where they didn’t know what to do…what did they do and how did they perform?

5)    Communication

Rockstars find the most powerful, clear and effective way of communicating a point. You could also use the word “Articulate” here, which may be a more powerful way to explain this point!.

Under the definition of articulate, the top 4 definitions are:

  1. Endowed with the power of speech.

  2. Composed of distinct, meaningful syllables or words, as human speech.

  3. Expressing oneself easily in clear and effective language: an articulate speaker.

  4. Characterized by the use of clear, expressive language:

Four quotes to understand the importance of communication:

“In my library are about a thousand volumes of biography – a rough calculation indicates that more of these deal with men who have talked themselves upward than with all the scientists, writers, saints and doers combined. Talkers have always ruled. They will continue to rule. The smart thing is to join them.” – Bruce Barton (1886-1967)
“The ability to express an idea is well nigh as important as the idea itself.” – Bernard Baruch
“When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim that a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall. So with men. If you would win a man to tour cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, sat what he will, is the great high road to his reason, and which, once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his  judgment of the justice of tour cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action … and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart. . . Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him…” – Abraham Lincoln, 1842 (my favorite President!)
“The spoken word is almost the polar opposite of the written word… In the spoken medium, what you say must be believed to have impact. Believability is overwhelmingly determined at a preconscious level.” Bert Decker

Yes, that last one was my father…but he has been quoted before as entrepreneur, communication expert and author.

Communication skills also bridge to other important competencies, such as informing employees and management, written communication, motivating others, and interpersonal savvy.  Ultimately if someone has good communication skills, there’s a better chance they have (or can improve) on the above…because none of those can happen without good communication skills as a foundation.

How do you interview for communication skills? Obviously the interview itself is a test. How do they present themselves? How do they tell stories, or make a point? Would you put them in front of your best customers? Do they talk too much? Did they answer the question? You can also put them through a presentation test, which we do with most of our hires at Bazaarvoice. You could ask them to do an analysis that you’re not familiar with and ask them to explain it to you. You can also ask what they’ve done to improve their communication skills, and what they’d like to do to improve.

Ok, this is getting long for a blog post. I suppose this topic alone could be a book. Actually, there is one that goes into other ideas to become a ‘star’ at work

But, I like to simplify things. Keep it simple. Hmmm, maybe that should be the sixth star? Nah.


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