The Difference Between True Rockstars & Pretenders

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I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of teams during my time as an Agile coach. I have loved and enjoyed working with each and every one of them. There are some though that are more memorable than others.

Frequently it is those teams that I coach first in any organization – in psychology this would be referred to as the primacy effect. Sometimes it is because of the nature of the team. Recently I found myself waxing nostalgic for one very particular team that was my first team and also memorable because they were “rockstars”.

Let me make it clear that the team name was not “rockstars”. I have had many teams in my time self-identify their team with the name “rockstars”, but, somewhat predictably, these self-proclaimed “rockstars” rarely lived up to their own press. The team I am thinking of was one that was hand-picked and put together because they were true high-performers within the organization. They were the best programmers, QA and management.

While the generally accepted belief is that creating a functioning team of rockstars is fraught with difficulties because many have over-sized egos, I did not find that to be the case with a true “rockstar” team. It was the pretenders to rock stardom who had egos and were difficult to manage. It did not take long to figure out the difference between true rockstars and pretenders. It all boiled down to one thing:

True rockstars listen.

(And, of course, they do not refer to themselves as rockstars).

As a coach, a big part of my job is getting people to change their behavior. The true rockstars became the way they are because they have listened, because it is more important to them to be the best then to appear to be the best. The true rockstars know that they will make mistakes from time to time but in order to be the best, they must try new things from time to time, to stumble and fall sometimes. Of course, the true rockstars always get back up, dust themselves off and work until they succeed.

That is not to say that true rockstars will not challenge a coach and take everything that is said without question. They are the best because they question everything, but they also accept that learning can happen anywhere at anytime and can come from any source, even from a coach whose programming chops would never measure up. Once they are convinced that you are not wasting their time, they will not only listen but they will readily adopt ways of implementing new ideas. My own group of “rockstars” were tasked with taking cutting-edge technology and delivering it to customers many times faster than ever before in their organization and they did, not just once, but on multiple occasions. I believe that their success hinged primarily on the fact that they were smart enough to listen, not only to me, but to any and all who might have something, no matter how small, to help them become better.

The pretenders are different. They are closed to new ideas because they have all the answers. They use their experience as a reason not to listen to others. Their ego is so tied with their “rockstar” status that change is a threat. To change would be to admit that they were not the experts, that they do not know everything.

Beware the pretenders.

Larry Apke

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