Culture | August 13, 2014

What is a “Rock Star” Employee?

We’ve all heard it somewhere before: “Our employees are rock stars!” Rock star is quickly becoming the golden buzzword in business for describing high-performing employees. I’ve used it many times myself, but lately I’ve been thinking about what the term actually means. What qualities of actual rock stars are we ascribing to employees when we say it, and are those the qualities we actually want from a high performer?

Bad Company

It puzzles me, because in society we most often identify actual rock stars by their bad behavior. Ozzy Osbourne and Nikki Sixx for instance gained their reputations while touring together by doing things like setting themselves on fire, desecrating the Alamo, and biting the heads off of small mammals—decidedly unprofessional behavior. Robert Plant of Led Zepplin infamously claimed that he was a “Golden God,” and Iggy Pop once challenged a Detroit motorcycle gang to a fight before a concert. I don’t know what it would be like to work in a company of rock stars like this, but I guarantee the meetings would be a lot livelier.

The B-Side

As a contrast, take a look at this Inc. article, Top 5 Signs That New Hire Will Be a Rock-Star Employee. With all apologies and due respect to the wonderful people at Inc. who produce stellar content on a daily basis, this is exactly the kind of disparity I’m talking about. According to the article, the qualities of a “rock-star” employee are integrity, proven ability to get things done, low drama, no surprises, and passion. Real rock stars are certainly passionate, but would any of them sell albums if they were filled with integrity, low drama, and no surprises?

Social Distortion

Let’s be fair: Buzzwords don’t have a lot of durability by design, and this is all very nit-picky. Most people like using “rock star” to describe employees. I like it too. It sounds cool and it inspires people. But perhaps we can spin some more germane parallels out of the rock star mythos to use in the workplace. These are my humble suggestions:

They are self-reliant – Every rock star worth their salt has a good rags-to-riches story, because they didn’t settle for someone’s idea of who they were and focused on being the best. It gives them and your employees grit and determination.

They are highly creative – Lady Gaga and Madonna can tell you there are no shortage of costumes, laser shows, dance numbers, and smoke machines to make a normal performance extraordinary. Rock star employees are creative with everything they do and it shows in their work.

They are thrill-seekers – Why else would you pick a fight with a motorcycle gang? In the workplace however, this translates to a willingness to get excited about projects, or create excitement where there is none, motivating coworkers.

They love the encore – The best rock stars don’t finish their set then call it a night. They always find the energy for that last encore performance, and bring down the house… again. Rock star employees do the same, never settling for stopping at the whistle. They are so metal.

They’re in the band – Bona fide rock stars work with a team of musicians and artists to create their music, and strive to work with only the best. Some don’t play well with others (David Lee Roth, I’m looking at you), but a good front-man understands that he’s nothing without his bandmates. Rock star employees are in the band, and know the importance of not letting their coworkers fail.

However you define a “rock star employee” in your company, take these suggestions with a grain of salt as a simple plea from a guy who loves music. Until then, we hope you and the Golden Gods in your organization continue to rock on.

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