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What do Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney and Thomas Edison have in common? Early in their careers, the three were passed over by their first bosses, who failed to recognize their unique talents. A producer at Baltimore’s WJZ-TV told Oprah Winfrey that “you’re not cut out for television.” Walt Disney was not considered creative by his managers, and Thomas Edison had to work on his experiments in secret because his manager forbade him from pursuing his scientific interests.

These three legendary figures fell into a category that is still shared by countless uber-talented overachievers scattered across organizations everywhere, representing an employee archetype as overlooked as underappreciated: The silent star. Silent stars are those unsung team members adding profound value without publicizing their wins — those self-starters who are OK with pursuing less visible goals. It’s far too easy for organizations to take them for granted and to fail to comprehend their real worth. Startups graduating to the next stage of growth are particularly susceptible to losing sight of these quiet heroes, causing them to disengage and then often exit (nearly unnoticed). 

Over the years, I have watched too many growing companies fail to recognize and nurture their hidden gems and thus let slip away all-important contributors. And now, with studies highlighting high-growth startups’ vulnerabilities to attrition, and the Great Resignation continuing apace, growing startups must search out ways to renew silent stars’ determination and fortify their connection to the company. Drawing on my experiences, I’ve come to identify best practices that can enable leaders to recognize and understand their low-profile overachievers, keeping them engaged and thereby keeping them on your team.

Who are your silent stars?

No doubt, startups are great survivors and innovators. But they also have some fundamental weaknesses in their organizational structures that can sometimes be the seeds of their undoing. Particularly in startups’ first few years of chaotic growth, they are often prone to weaknesses in coordination, communication and even team leadership, and this can leave core team members feeling undervalued. More often than not, the first to feel underappreciated are those extremely driven silent stars more concerned with the task at hand than with seeking acknowledgment. Thus, in their formative years, and at the juncture when they need these low-profile overachievers most, startups stand to lose signature talent. Among 25 hyper-growth startups surveyed, in fact, one in four employees was leaving within a year.

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Identifying these silent stars depends on being aware of who they are and their needs. Unfortunately, by their very nature, silent stars won’t often reveal themselves. 

It’s therefore important for organizations to understand that these unsung stars often match up with one of two distinct personas. 

First among these is the rock star. Rock stars usually stand out as independent-minded team members who do great work with little or no supervision required. Other team members often seek them out for assistance, and they’re the people colleagues frequently turn to when they want to make sure something is done well. 

As extraordinary as they are, rock stars are not as interested in climbing the corporate ladder — rather, recognition and encouragement are what motivate them. These all-important contributors enjoy working on exciting projects, learning new skills and being persistently reminded of the value they create.

The second type of silent star, the rising star, is just as talented and dependable but can be distinguished by their eagerness, fast turnaround times, and determination for not only recognition but career advancement. 

Because both types of silent stars tend to be more focused on their responsibilities than on actively getting noticed, they often fall below the radar. Meanwhile, because rising stars may be less aware of available growth opportunities, preoccupied with matters outside work, or even under the assumption that their work ethic will inevitably be noticed, they often don’t take a conventional path to climb the corporate ladder. As a result, they’re often passed over for promotions.

Searching out the quiet achievers

For the growing company, the first step towards meeting your silent stars’ needs, wants and goals is to proactively search out these workers. To this end, there are a number of tactics to deploy.

In most fast-maturing startups, unsung heroes establish reputations as leaders and influencers among their peers. A closer inspection of informal networks can therefore be incredibly enlightening in many younger organizations. Peer-to-peer recognition programs allow managers to closely monitor and analyze employees who regularly excel and those who frequently support others with valuable advice.

You can, for example, establish more formal recognition programs where team members regularly nominate coworkers for exhibiting strengths like proactiveness and problem-solving. Or, you may use informal settings like team-wide messaging channels or whiteboards where members can praise a peer’s contribution at any given time. Managers can then interview those with the most nominations, taking the opportunity to talk with them about their strengths and where they feel they can add the most value beyond their current responsibilities. 

Another way to seek out these core members is through “skip-level” conversations. Every quarter, upper-level managers should try to systematically talk to junior employees in the company to understand the team dynamics better, recognize co-workers, and get a better sense of how valuable team members solve daily tasks efficiently.

Throughout this search, take the opportunity to assess what may have kept you from previously noticing these silent stars. If you’ve learned from 50 team members about whom they trust and respect, cross-reference these numbers against the conclusion drawn from your organization’s conventional employee assessments. In this way, you’ll find your unsung heroes while also identifying the biases that caused you to overlook them in the past.

Praising your rock stars 

Once you’ve uncovered your hidden workhorses, honest conversation with silent stars becomes imperative to understanding their needs. Schedule monthly conversations to discuss their current projects, show interest and empathy, and most importantly, ask lots of questions. With a keener understanding of who these silent stars are, and which of our two categories they fall into, you’ll then be able to better support and ultimately retain them.

Keeping your rock stars happy is all about recognizing that for them, motivation is inextricably tied to acknowledgment. Managers have to search for opportunities to praise these team members publicly, whether it’s through employee recognition programs or positive feedback on calls and emails. In talking with them, get to know the things they take pride in and aim to cite these strengths in any commendation you give them. In the same vein, while bonuses are great, make sure you tie those bonuses to specific achievements that the team member has had. Helping them see that you see the specific importance of what they do goes a long way.

It’s also worth noting that many of your rock stars’ wins can take the form of less tangible, less visible achievements. Therefore, get creative with accolades for accomplishments like quality control, problem-solving, global collaboration, or innovation.

Ultimately, the key is to consistently make your rock stars feel recognized and to communicate that you’re well aware of their worth. Otherwise, your rock stars are likely to grow resentful and slowly disengage.

Guiding your rising stars

For rising stars, the key to job fulfillment is different. Secretly, they’re craving leadership and growth opportunities. 

As we all know, however, the higher ranks of growing teams often come to be filled by those who not only do their job well but have a knack for navigating their way up the corporate ladder. And yet, behind these team members, there are always ambitious rising stars who, despite excelling at their daily tasks, refrain from “playing the game” of career advancement. This problem can be compounded in the fast-paced context of the growing startup, where managers and executives lack established practices for identifying talent and mapping out career progression for those persons. 

Help your rising stars take the first steps towards navigating the career landscape. Talk with them about their short-term and long-term goals, and help them consider what skills and qualifications they’ll need to obtain these goals. You may help them enroll in online courses — whether it be a marketing certification or a cloud technology course — and assist them in finding areas where they can put these new skills into practice.

Rising stars will also genuinely value mentorships, the opportunity to shadow current leaders, and plenty of Q&A moments with higher-ups. Further, keeping them engaged will depend on finding just the right time and context for acknowledging their great work. Leaders should try to praise them in newsletters, in handwritten notes or in the presence of executives. Asking an executive to mention this person during a meeting can also go a really long way.

Showing them they matter

In the end, hacking talent management — amid the Great Resignation, the possibility of economic recession, and even the growing pains of your own organization — can be daunting. Still, in the case of your quiet self-starters, the glass is more than half full. These silent stars’ default mentality is one of commitment and perseverance, and they are already extremely valuable members of your organization. 

What’s important, then, is taking the initiative to find them, appreciate them, and thereby capitalize on their energy and creativity. For those companies aspiring to the next level of growth, these team members are invaluable. 

Andrea Short is global executive marketing leader at Ingram Micro.

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