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A former Google and Apple exec says most great employees are either 'rock stars' or 'superstars' — and you can't manage them the same way

Shana Lebowitz
Bruce springsteen performing at a concert like a rockstar

(They do equally awesome work.REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)
Promotions are awesome. Even beyond compensation, they generally come with more power and prestige and, if you're really lucky, a "congratulations" cake.

But here's the thing. Not everyone wants a promotion.

Some people are perfectly content doing what they do best — whether that's writing, coding, or selling products — and giving them a new and different role wouldn't be especially helpful to either the person or the organization.

That's according to Kim Scott, a former Google and Apple exec and CEO coach, who recently founded a company called Radical Candor and published a book by the same name.

Scott says most great employees can be divided into two categories: rock stars and superstars.

Rock stars are all about stability (hence the "rock" in their name) — so they're the ones who wouldn't especially benefit from a promotion. Superstars are all about upward growth, and promotions may be exactly what they're looking for.

Before we break down these classifications further, there are two important things to remember.

One, Scott says rock star and superstar are "modes," meaning you can be a rock star one year and a superstar the next, depending on what's going on in your life at the time.

And two, rock stars and superstars can do equally great work. It's a question of what kind of growth trajectory they're on: gradual or steep.

Of course, the only way to know whether your employees are on gradual or steep growth trajectories is to get to know them, and ask questions.

Scott visited the Business Insider office in March and told us that superstars are "in a period in their career where they want to change things very quickly. They want to learn a lot of new things. They're sort of in a step-function growth mode."

Rock stars, on the other hand, are "on a more gradual growth trajectory," she said. "These are the people who are the source of stability on your team. And it's really important to balance growth and stability." In other words, rock stars and superstars complement each other. You need both on a team.

Kim Scott smiling

(Kim Scott.Sam Rega/Business Insider)
The tough part is learning how to manage each type of employee differently.

Scott said that, if someone's in superstar mode, "what that person needs are new challenges. They need to understand what their path to promotion is. They probably need a mentor because they want to learn new stuff — a mentor beyond you."

If someone's in rock star mode, "you don't want to promote them, either because they're not ready for promotion or because they don't want a promotion at that moment in their lives," Scott said. She continued:

"What they need is to be able to deepen that expertise. They often have spent years accumulating some expertise and they're often eager to share it with others.

"So you can set them up as a guru who teaches others and give them the time and space to teach others because they often love teaching. And these are the people who are going to help those on your team doing good but not great work become great."

Years ago, Scott designed a course called "Managing at Apple." The questions she encouraged managers to ask themselves suggest that bosses need to leave behind conventional notions of "ambition."

Those questions include: "What growth trajectory does each person on my team want to be on right now?" and "Have I given everybody opportunities that are in line with what they really want?"

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