How to Retain the Rockstars You Work So Hard to Hire

by Jeff Hyman, Founder of Recruit Rockstars

It takes forethought, planning, and consistency to lead Rockstars. You can expect a lot out of them. But they have high expectations of you, too. It doesn’t mean you need to be smarter in all domains, but it means you must serve them and provide leadership.

Creating a Great Place to Work

Because Rockstars have the luxury of choosing a home where they feel they can do their best work, it’s vital that you provide such a place. If your company is like most, you have a ways to go on this dimension. As with recruiting Rockstars, you choose to do this or not do this. But you can’t do it half-ass. As a four-time entrepreneur, I’ve found that every hour and effort I’ve invested in building a great place to work makes my recruiting job that much easier. It doesn’t require paying top dollar. It doesn’t require the sexiest office space. It simply demands a commitment by you and your leadership team to do the things to attract and enable your Rockstars to do great work, and then get out of their way.


I have the good fortune of serving as Chairman of Retrofit, the Chicago-based online healthcare company I started five years ago. We have sixty remarkable employees and have won numerous awards for being among the nation’s best places to work (including an award for best workplaces for women). Here are a few examples of the programs that have made it possible: 

Free Product

Retrofit provides an opportunity for each team member to participate in the company’s weight-management program. Each receives a live coach, a smart app, a wireless tracker, and digital body scale. They also get access to expert-led online classes, and social support from an online community where employees can engage with each other and post updates to keep each other healthy.

Unlimited Vacation Policy

As a healthy lifestyle company, Retrofit understands that happier employees are more productive. We want our folks to be able to enjoy the things they love to do. So, our unlimited vacation policy allows employees to take off as much time as they need, as long as they complete their work or arrange for coverage while they’re out. We also provide the day off for birthdays and a Retrofit Recharge week where employees take time off to refill their battery.

Work from Anywhere

Although based in Chicago, Retrofit has employees across the country. And they can work from wherever they feel most productive. This means less windshield time and more time for the things that make us happy. We even celebrate the holidays with a virtual online party.

Flexible Hours

We make it as easy as possible for our employees to seamlessly integrate their work and their life. We have both full-time and part-time employees; some work early or late. This allows us to best serve our clients and customers, while providing flexibility to our employees. It makes a huge impact to think about the entire person, not just the employee part of the person.

Healthy Workplace

We know that part of a healthy lifestyle is moving throughout the day. We encourage our employees to get up and get moving. Our office space includes treadmill desks and standing desks. We offer regular employee walking challenges to encourage employees to get moving, and we take breaks for yoga during company meetings.

Healthy Food

Of course, complimentary fruit and other healthy treats are on hand to give employees the energy they need to perform and feel great—not the constant supply of sugar provided by some employers.

Good Egg Days

 “Be a good egg” has been part of Retrofit’s core DNA from day one, so we look for people who truly are good eggs. Employees are encouraged to take off one day each quarter to make a difference in their communities through volunteerism.

Worth Every Penny

Now we begin to come full circle with the beginning of this book. There, I implored you to devote 30 to 50 percent of your time to the people part of your business. When you hire Rockstars, you spend less time motivating and managing. Even though you’ll spend 30 to 50 percent of your time hiring, leading, and inspiring, it saves you time in the long run because you’ll no longer have to micromanage, motivate, and babysit B- and C-Players. You can spend your time looking forward, rather than feeling stuck managing today. It allows you to build an organization that’s driving forward into the future. Rockstars make that possible.


There are downsides to hiring Rockstars, however. These factors shouldn’t dissuade you, but they are worth understanding.

  • Hard to find. Finding Rockstars is far more difficult than finding B- or C-Players. You must be willing to avoid settling when you’re hiring for a position. Because the recruiting might take longer, it means the rest of your employees need to fill in and pinch hit, likely doing extra work to compensate for the vacancy. Rockstars are willing to do that extra work if it means you don’t hire a B- or C-Player to join their team. They will become frustrated, though, if you have a significant number of vacancies for a long time—so do your part, which is recruiting.
  • High expectations. Rockstars also have high expectations of your leadership. They will hold you accountable. If you’re not doing a good job as their leader, they will call you on it (B- and C-Players won’t). This will absolutely make you a better leader over time, but you need the stomach for feedback and critique.
  • Rockstar-conducive environment. If you’re not good with servant leadership and following your people—if you must be the smartest one in the room—Rockstars won’t mesh well with you. They don’t work under command-and-control structures, so they won’t stay.
  • Career challenge. Rockstars expect career advancement. They will leave you when you don’t provide them with stretch and a career path, or when you fail to recognize their contributions. Your goal as the manager is to keep the Rockstars so happy that when recruiters call, they aren’t interested. You want them to tell headhunters: “I love what I’m doing. I love the people I work with. We have a Rockstar team. We’re delivering results. We’re on a great mission, and I’m not going to risk that for a few more dollars.” A 2017 study by Bamboo HR said the number one reason people leave their jobs is because of lack of career growth.
  • Poor work/life balance. Rockstars want the flexibility to integrate their life with their work. If you micromanage them and treat them like children, they’ll seek greener pastures.
  • Lousy manager. People don’t quit their job; they quit their manager. If you’ve recruited a Rockstar director of marketing but she’s working under an average VP of marketing, your new hire is at risk from day one. She’s going to get frustrated, be uninspired, and ultimately disconnected from the organization. Studies show that one’s relationship with their manager accounts for half of job satisfaction. So, remove the lousy managers—now.
  • Weak, ill-defined, or hostile culture. This happens when you fail to hire on the basis of DNA match. So, make it non-negotiable in the recruiting process.


As the leader, your primary job is to remove these obstacles to high-performance. If you can do that, you won’t lose many people. Guaranteed.

How to Keep Your Rockstars

You’ve promised them a place where they can do their best work, so provide it. Create an environment where they’ll flourish. This means the culture must be consistent. It means you only hire people who share your company DNA and you let go of people who don’t. As you read that, you likely think, “Well, of course” but be honest; think about your team, about the two or three mis-hires or poor fits you’ve been dragging for months, if not years. What is holding you back from removing them?


“Environment” refers to the physical space, but it also refers to the boundaries. Rockstars need to know the parameters, and then need the flexibility to maneuver to deliver results within those parameters. They like to understand the end goal, the time frame, the budget, and the boundaries and then be given some degree of freedom to design their own path to get there. It may not be the exact path you would have taken, but that’s okay. You’ll have created a far more loyal, engaged employee in the process.

Simple technology tools exist to help you check the pulse of your organization. I highly recommend TINYpulse, but there are others. These are fast, short, anonymous, employee-satisfaction surveys. Often, it’s just one question. Using it with your staff weekly or monthly will reveal the trend line of engagement and morale. You may not always like the results, but just as dieters can’t lose pounds without regular weigh-ins on a scale, it’s vital to see how your team is feeling.

How to Cope When a Rockstar Leaves

Losing a Rockstar is an absolute crime. I’ve cried myself to sleep on more than one occasion. So, it’s important to at least learn something from the loss. Do an exit interview (do it yourself; don’t delegate it to HR). You’re not trying to change the employee’s mind, but you want to understand why they are leaving. I ask: “What could I have done differently? When did you know? When did the problem start? And how do I not repeat it with others?”


It could be, of course, that they were offered a role that simply doesn’t exist at your company, or that they were offered a post overseas. You can do little to prevent those situations. But if they say, “Well, you began micromanaging me two months ago. We’ve talked about it, and I can’t stand it anymore,” it’s vital to learn. Or else other Rockstars will follow.


Losing a Rockstar is demoralizing to the rest of your team as well. It’s another downside of hiring a Rockstar, in fact. When a Rockstar chooses to leave, it sends a message to the rest of the company that all is not well. They’ll make their own guesses as to why the person left, and if they see the loss as part of a pattern, you’ve got work to do.

Regardless of others’ assumptions, be sure to never disparage the person who has decided to leave. If you do, those who remain will worry that you’ll do the same to them when they leave. They will also know you’re not trustworthy because the person gave a Rockstar performance, yet you’re disparaging them when they’re absent. It is okay to express disappointment and even take some of the blame. It’s okay to say, “I’m working on my leadership style so this doesn’t happen again,” or “I don’t blame her. She had an amazing opportunity, and we couldn’t compete with it as much as we tried.”


If you’ve done your job by reading this book and building a consistent culture of Rockstars, then 20 percent of the time, the Rockstar who left will realize the grass isn't greener after all.

So, treat your Rockstar well, even when they decide to leave your company. Wish them every success. Remind them what contributions they made and how impactful they were. Tell them that if the new opportunity isn’t what they’d hoped, you’d love to talk to them about the possibility of coming back.


Reach out to them in two weeks, four weeks, six weeks. They may say, “I’ve made a mistake. I’d like to talk about returning.” If that happens, welcome them back with open arms. That will increase your employee loyalty and reduce your attrition. A boomerang Rockstar is the best thing you could wish for. There’s no better win. And no better signal to your team that the grass isn’t always greener.

The All-Important Five Cs

After hiring a Rockstar, the real work begins—getting the most out of them. I’ve studied and tried countless leadership styles. I’m convinced that authenticity wins—be yourself. But ensure that you provide what I call the five Cs to your Rockstars. They value these more than treadmills, ping pong tables, and notoriety.


First and foremost, provide them with interesting work. Give them customer problems to solve and a variety of people to deal with. Ask them to figure out how to make things faster, cheaper, and better within the organization. Countless studies show that challenge is the most important factor to job satisfaction for Rockstars, ranking even higher than money.

Career Path

Rockstars are not only interested in their current role, but in their next one. They want to understand their likely career advancement and progression. That doesn’t necessarily mean an annual promotion. It can include lateral moves to broaden skill sets or working in a different geography. You can also say, “Here are some potential options for what might come next. I can’t promise them to you today, but if you do an outstanding job in this role, in a year, here are the kinds of things we see someone like you doing.”

The average new hire will work with at least fifteen companies during their career. The average tenure at a company is two years. So, if you can keep a Rockstar aboard your “train” for longer than that, you’re doing well. Go ahead and tell them, “My hope is to make this the best job of your life. If I do that, you’ll likely stay with us for a sustained amount of time. My expectations are high, but they’re realistic. My job is to get the best from you and provide the most fulfilling job you’ve ever had.”


There’s no need to have the career discussion more than every six months, but you need to understand their aspirations and how they evolve over time. That way, you can begin to think about their advancement and what other roles might make sense for them. Provide it before some headhunter does.


Part of career progression entails succession planning, so that when you experience a departure, you have a potential successor identified. The best companies in the world often have a successor in mind for every role; that way, if someone leaves, they have a replacement named by the end of the day. The injury-riddled occupation of football has addressed this issue with the motto, “Next man up.” Be prepared because you never know when a role will need to be refilled.


Bear in mind this will sometimes mean promoting a Rockstar who’s not quite ready for the next step—you can do so on an interim basis. This is often better than taking the chance with an outside recruit, who would come with risk and could be the reason your Rockstar departs when passed over for the role. Always search inside first; at the very least, when considering outside candidates, run all viable internal candidates in parallel through the same fair and objective process.

Candid Coaching

Most Rockstars respond well to candor, because they have an insatiable need to improve their performance. They recognize the path to promotion, to taking your job, and the CEO role perhaps one day, is to continually improve. To get better, they need and crave your feedback. So, provide it frequently. Ban the annual review; your Rockstars hate it as much as you detest cramming to write those missives over Christmas week. Instead, implement a monthly or quarterly coaching cycle. Find just two or three messages—not the laundry list given by most managers—that you want to reinforce, give specific examples, and then watch for improvement. When you catch them doing something right, reinforce it by letting them know you noticed and by recognizing them publicly if possible. Your two or three things should be tied to the skills they need for their next career move.


A powerful yet underused tool to help you give candid feedback is the Socratic method. Ask a few simple questions. “How do you think the (meeting/product launch/etc.) went? What could you have done differently? What could have gone better?” Rockstars are often their own toughest critics. Often, they are aware of what could have gone better or what they could have done differently. You can say, “What can I, as your manager, do next time to make sure your performance is better?”


Rockstars appreciate a work environment where candor, or a debate-and-align structure, is valued. This structure supports productive disagreements focused on the idea, not the person. Once a decision is reached, regardless of whether the group agreed or the leader reached a decision, everyone agrees to align behind that decision.


Open your personal network—including your LinkedIn network—to your team. Introduce them to mentors outside the organization. This is especially important if yours is a small company where there just aren’t many people for them to learn from. You might know people who would be great role models for your Rockstars. Some managers won’t do this because they want to keep their Rockstar a secret, but when you introduce them to people who can broaden their knowledge, they will be grateful. And that increases loyalty.


Compensation isn’t everything, but it’s something. I’ve found that more important than the fixed base salary, however, is the variable upside. Rockstars respond well to a challenge, and they respond well to currency tied to upside performance. Lay out specifically how they earn it. Be clear with what percentage they can earn and when it will be paid out. And don’t change the rules halfway through the game.


Rockstars don’t respond well to black-box, or subjective, variable compensation. No matter how well they do, they don’t know what they’ll earn. That’s not motivating, and so you’re wasting your money and frustrating your top performers. Avoid capping your variable compensation. If they can deliver three times what you expect them to deliver, they should receive a meaningful variable compensation payout.


Perhaps my greatest frustration with regard to compensation is that so many leaders apply the “peanut butter” approach. They spread money around, approximately the same to all employees, in an effort to keep the peace. Instead, use differentiation, the concept of not treating everyone equally, to separate Rockstars from B- and C-Players. It means promotions, titles, and public recognition for great performances. It means fair compensation tied to performance. So rather than giving everyone 2 to 5 percent raises, give 20 percent raises to the ones who deserve it. And yes, that means you’ll fund it by giving no raise this year to many. And those C-Players may choose to leave because of it. And that’s okay.


Differentiation is the hallmark of a leader who is serious about keeping her Rockstars.

Always be available when they need guidance, support, or help. Serve as a constant resource to them. Run interference for them—if you can’t remove obstacles from their path, you’re not a particularly useful manager for them. They need you to show them how to solve problems, not do it for them. Be sure, meanwhile, to connect what they do to the larger mission of the organization. Rockstars want to know why they are doing something or why a project is important.


Like anyone else, Rockstars need time, attention, and feedback. So, resist the temptation, particularly during their onboarding period, of being too hands-off; that’s a common mistake for leaders of Rockstars.

How to Help Them Improve

As the leader, it’s your responsibility to teach your employees three sets of skills—through formal training and informal coaching. This will prepare Rockstars for their successive roles in the future:

  • 1. Functional job skills. Be sure your employee knows how to do their job, the way your company expects it to be done. Don’t presume that industry knowledge eliminates the need for training on specific job skills.
  • 2. Interpersonal skills. It’s not enough to know how to do their job. They also need to know how to deal with people; how to debate, disagree, lead, inspire, coach, and—of course—recruit. Pass along your copy of this book once you finish. These vital skills aren’t taught during formal education.
  • 3. Organizational skills. Every company has its own policies; it’s important that your employee knows how things are done within the organization; how decisions are made, and how individual compromise for the whole of the company leads to advancement.

About the Author

Author Profile pic

Jeff Hyman launched his recruiting career at Heidrick & Struggles and Spencer Stuart, the preeminent global executive search firms. 

Today, he’s CEO of Chicago-based Recruit Rockstars. Along the way, Jeff has created four companies, backed by $50 million in venture capital. 

Based on his 25 years in recruiting, he authored the bestselling book Recruit Rockstars.

Jeff also hosts the five-star Recruit Rockstars Podcast and is featured frequently by CNBC, Inc, Fortune, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg. 

He holds degrees from Kellogg School of Management and The Wharton School. 

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