A team can still thrive without its star

WHEN Wayne Rooney hit the turf last week during Manchester United’s game against Bayern Munich, English hearts sank. Not only is the striker arguably the strongest member of the national team, but he is also a talismanic figure. The same can happen in business, and the morale of a team can be seriously affected by the loss of a star performer. So how do you motivate a team when a key person leaves, or retires? We asked three leading business thinkers.

Ceri Roderick, partner at business psychologists Pearn Kandola
HUMANS have lazy brains and we tend to be seduced by the cult of the individual. It is much easier to vest all our attention in one person, whether it is a footballer or a star fund manager, rather than analyzing their actual contribution. But that is almost as silly as the demonizing of people who fail. Both sides of the hero-to-zero tendency are unrealistic.

This is why losing a star can demotivate people, and why it is vital to talk about it in the most objective way possible. You should say, “This person was only responsible for seven per cent of our business,” or whatever. Is there somebody else whose performance is within 10 per cent of theirs? The chances are that there is. Things are almost never as bad as they might seem.

The other thing that you have to stress is how good the business is, and that the star was only successful because he or she was a part of the business. That said, cheery messages are not enough and you have to know how you are going to replace the person, whether you want to bring in a new person from outside, or to promote somebody internally. But an important message for the remaining people is that this can be a springboard for better things.

The way to look at this is that it creates opportunities for others to step up to the plate. Look at Ronaldo leaving Manchester United, they didn’t go down the tubes. Other people in the team often think that there’s more space for them to shine, and this motivates them.

Part of dealing with this problem is being prepared for it, too. A well-run business should have systems in place to deal with succession so that one person leaving doesn’t cause too many problems. A manager should always think about what happens when a top person leaves, and to be prepared for that.

David Sims, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School
THE question here is, how important are stars? We know that teams that are full of all the best individuals suffer from what is called “Apollo syndrome” and do not perform well. Star quality, like charisma, is much admired, but it may not be all that good for performance. It looks good, but it does not necessarily do much.

Losing your star can galvanise other team members into action because they are keen to prove that their contribution was of value too. They may actually perform better without the star. It is easy to depend too heavily on a star, which is something that even the stars themselves can find irritating. Everyone has to take responsibility when the star is not there, often with good results.

It is not only team members who tend to overvalue their stars but also the competition, and if your star is absent this may make the competition less alert because they think your performance will be impaired. This can give you a competitive advantage, as illustrated by any number of famous sports victories that happen in the absence of one side’s star, making the other side complacent.

Some teams implode without their star, but this is self-inflicted. They believe they can’t do their best without the star and then set about proving it. But the key person in team performance is never the star with the best technical skills. It is the person who knows what they are good at and bad at, knows what everyone else is good and bad at, and orchestrates the whole performance to bring out the best from everyone.

Business writer David Taylor
THERE are four things here. Firstly, really motivate the key people in your teams, so they don’t leave in the first place. Remember that people have two main drivers in work as in life – to be valued and to have freedom, that is, to feel empowered. Being valued doesn’t just mean earning lots of money, it means being encouraged and appreciated. And real empowerment happens when people are clear what they are free to do, within clear boundaries.

Secondly, always have a succession plan in place in case they do leave, or retire. Have successors identified for every leader or key team member. These can be internal or external – just agree who they are, let them know and start to prepare them.

Thirdly, focus on unlocking the strengths in all of your people, so you are less dependent on key individuals. Talking to people about competencies never works, and just bores them silly. You should focus instead on unlocking the skills and talent that your people already have. Put your teams together on this basis – if you have a team with different and complementary strengths, then you will deliver more, faster, and be less dependent on any one “star.”

Fourthly and finally, keep in touch with people who leave and who you want back – the grass is not always greener, and the cheapest and most effective way to recruit is through people who have left you in the past – just don’t bring them back in a more senior role.

Do all this, if one of your star performers hurts their ankle, you will be well ready.

David Taylor is the author of three “Naked” books – Leader, Coach and the forthcoming Millionaire.