Rock star vs Superstar: Radical Candor Explains

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Candor" by Kim Scott. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the difference between rock star vs. superstar in Radical Candor? How should you manage these employees differently?

Each employee progresses and grows differently. In Radical Candor, rock star vs. superstar is about their performance and growth trajectory.

Keep reading to better understand rock star vs. superstar in Radical Candor, including what the terminology means and how you should treat them.

Radical Candor: Rock Star vs. Superstar

Before you dive into rock star vs. superstar in Radical Candor, you should understand the different categories. Your employees will likely fall into one of five performance and growth trajectory combinations:

  1. High performance with rapid growth (“superstar”)
  2. High performance with gradual growth (“rock star”)
  3. Low performance with no growth
  4. Low performance with expected rapid growth
  5. Mediocre

1. Supporting High Performance With Rapid Growth (Superstars)

“Superstars” are team members who like their work and are very good at it, and who are on a very rapid growth trajectory. They’re looking to move up in the ranks and are prepared to dedicate the necessary time and energy to doing so. These results-driven people are often coming up with innovative ideas, carrying your team to the next level. In thinking through rock star vs. superstar in Radical Candor, both are high-performance individuals but it is about their growth pace.

The most important step in supporting your superstars is making sure they’re consistently challenged so they don’t feel bored or get stuck. There are three ways you can meaningfully push your superstars to continue growing: keep them challenged, don’t get in their way, and don’t assume they want to manage. In Radical Candor, rock star vs. superstar also diverges on this. The regular challenge is especially important for this group.

Keep them challenged: To prevent boredom, superstars need to be learning constantly. Be on the lookout for new projects they can take on, or find a mentor from outside your team that can help them more than you can. Bear in mind that they’ll most likely outgrow your team, so don’t become too dependent on them—be ready to replace them. You can create a challenge for them by asking them to help you with this—they can teach or train those who are meant to take over once they’ve moved on.

Don’t get in their way: Recognize that your job is to encourage your superstars to grow beyond your team, or help them get hired to a place where they can thrive. All too many managers squash their superstars’ ambitions and growth because they want to keep the great work and willing attitude for themselves and their team. Stifling your employee in this way will cause resentment, lack of motivation, and subsequently, poor work. Likewise, many managers fail to recognize when they have a potential superstar on their hands who just doesn’t do great work on their team. There are other places this person can thrive—make sure you’re not holding them back from pursuing better opportunities by insisting that they just try harder in their current position. Help them look for opportunities where they can do great work. 

Don’t assume they want to manage: Thinking that growth naturally leads to management is a common mistake, because in many organizations there’s a real emphasis put on “leadership potential.” This emphasis on leadership is unfair on several levels. It’s unfair for the superstar because it naturally caps their growth. If they’re full of potential, but not leadership potential, there’s only so far they can advance in the organization. They may have untapped growth that can continue to massively benefit the organization or their field, but they’re held back because they don’t want to be anyone’s boss. It’s also unfair to the teams of unwilling managers. When someone’s a boss just because that was the only advancement available, they’ll either do a mediocre job out of disinterest, or a downright bad job out of resentment. Bad management limits both the growth of the employee who could thrive outside a management position, and the growth of team members who could thrive under good management. 

Google gets around this particular problem with their “individual contributor” career path, which is even more prestigious than many management positions and is designed to honor the ambitions of superstars who don’t want to be anyone’s boss. In this position, superstars can continue growing and learning on their own terms—they have no overhead supervision and have the freedom to work on projects as they see fit.

2. Supporting High Performance With Gradual Growth (Rock Stars)

Rock stars are team members who like their work and are very good at it, but have chosen not to follow a rapid growth trajectory. They might be happy where they are, or have other things going on in their lives outside work that they want to dedicate time and energy to. These reliable team members are the people who keep things running smoothly from day to day. So, in Radical Candor, rock star vs. superstar comes down to how quickly they grow.

The most important step in supporting your rock stars is making sure you’re not ignoring them or their work. There are two ways you can meaningfully support your rock stars: make sure you’re giving them fair reviews, and give them regular recognition for their efforts.

Give them fair reviews: Many organizations’ review processes focus too heavily on leadership or promotion potential. If you focus too heavily on these factors, your rock stars will often be overlooked when it comes to performance reviews—especially if your organization sets a quota on how many stellar reviews you can give out. Your rock stars deserve a few places among these stellar reviews, even if they’re not gunning for a promotion. You should make sure there’s an even mix of rock stars and superstars at the top of your reviews, to ensure that not all your praise is being reserved for those on a rapid growth trajectory. In Radical Candor, rock star vs. superstar has a distinction here because of the way rock stars are sometimes treated.

Give them regular recognition: Your rock stars deserve recognition and respect for the role they have in keeping things running smoothly in your organization. There are a few ways you can meaningfully recognize your rock stars:

  • Simply say thank you to them—this demonstrates that you not only see their work, but you see them
  • Establish them as an “expert” in their work, someone who can be trusted with decisions and giving out information
  • Give praise in a way that’s personal and attuned to their interests. For example, an employee who hates the spotlight should receive their recognition privately, but an employee who enjoys the validation of a group should be recognized via public announcement. 

It’s crucial to realize that promotions are almost never the type of recognition a rock star wants. Don’t put rock stars up for promotion without having an honest discussion with them about what they want. Otherwise, you risk promoting someone beyond their competence—which a superstar might take as an interesting challenge, but will overwhelm a rock star—or promoting someone who’s competent but has no desire for the new position. While this risk might feel like the right decision for you, it can cost you a valuable employee. Scott witnessed a fellow manager make this mistake: one of his employees had carefully planned out his career so that by the time he had a child, he’d have a solid, well-paying job that he’d mastered. He would have plenty of time and mental energy to focus on his child, because he was so comfortable with his work. However, his manager had other plans and promoted him. The employee, who wanted to stay in his rock star position, declined the promotion and was told that declining wasn’t an option—so, he quit.

Rock star vs Superstar: Radical Candor Explains

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  • How you have to be direct with people while also caring sincerely for them
  • Why relationships are an essential part of successful leadership
  • How to create a strong team culture that delivers better results

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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