03/10/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated May 10, 2014

Managing Superstars

I frequently get asked about managing superstars. Countless fortunate managers have said, "I have some employees who are so talented, so skilled, and so motivated that all I really want to do is get out of their way. How do you manage a superstar?"

Even superstars need to be managed. Nobody can be as objective about himself and his own performance as his boss should be. Nobody can hold herself accountable -- accountability comes from knowing you have to answer to someone else. Even superstars have bad days. Even superstars go in the wrong direction sometimes. Even superstars have lapses in judgment or integrity. Even superstars need guidance, direction and support. Even superstars need encouragement. Even superstars need to be challenged. Even superstars need to be developed. What is more, superstars often want to know that someone is keeping track of their great work and looking for ways to provide them with special rewards.

But sometimes, managers will tell me, "This superstar is different. This superstar is so talented, skilled and motivated, that this person really doesn't need me. I have nothing to offer this person." If that I really true, that doesn't mean the person doesn't need a boss. It just means that maybe you shouldn't be the person's boss. One option is to get this person a promotion or move this person to a boss who does have something to offer him. Option two is to take your observation to its natural conclusion: Maybe you should change your relationship with this person so that you work together as partners/colleagues/collaborators, rather than being this person's boss. But then you have to make that change explicit. You simply cannot have authority over a person and then fail to live up to your responsibilities as a boss.

Sometimes what managers are really saying here is this, "this person is so talented, so skilled, and so motivated, that she is able to handle more responsibility than most; she can make her own project plans; she gets lots of work done very well very fast all day every day; she doesn't cause problems; she learns quickly and steadily; she has great relationship skills; she understands the big picture; she is a great critical thinker; and she takes exactly the right amount of initiative without overstepping. How do I deal with that?" If that is the case, the way you manage this person is to check in regularly to make sure things are going as well as you think. Ask her for regular reports on her responsibilities, her project plans, her work, and whatever else she thinks you should know. Sit back and listen carefully. Do what you can to verify what she says. Write things down. Go out of your way to ask her regularly, "What do you need from me?" Try hard to reward her or her great work. And count yourself lucky.

Other times what managers are really saying is, "this person is so talented, so skilled, and so motivated, that she constantly challenges me in ways I don't expect. How do I deal with that?" Stay on your toes. Think on your feet. Try hard to respond in meaningful ways, though remember that sometimes silence is a powerful response. You might try this once in a while: When she challenges you in ways you don't expect, give her an assignment. Ask her to come up with three good solutions to the challenge. And make sure you give her a deadline.