Over the last 20 years, I have worked for (and known people who worked for) bosses who did not want their employees to become prominent names in their industry. Whether they felt threatened, thought it distracted them from their “real” work, or thought it was a waste of time and resources, these managers didn’t like employees who had name recognition
One friend — let’s call him Burt O’Higgins — went to work for a software company after spending years developing his own personal brand, becoming one of his industry’s top thought leaders. The company considered it a real coup to get my friend to work there. “But,” they said, “you can’t speak at any more conference events as yourself. You can’t be “Burt O’Higgins from Big Software,” you have to be “I’m from Big Software, my name is Burt.”
They couldn’t give any logical reason why they didn’t like it, but the message was clear: you’re more popular than us and we don’t like it.
So Burt left, started his own company, and worked for Big Software as a freelance contractor, charging more than his old salary and working fewer hours. And he got to speak at as many conferences as he wanted, which boosted his own popularity and increased his client base.
Big Software might have benefited more if they had just let Burt be Burt, do his thing under his own name, and still attract plenty of attention for his employer.
There’s nothing wrong with letting your employees be industry rock stars, becoming one of the popular thought leaders that others look to for new ways of thinking. In fact, there are a few benefits your company will see by helping your employees become those leaders.
1) It makes them effective communicators
Every job description I see requires “effective oral and written communication skills.” Speaking at 4 – 6 conferences a year is going to build up effective oral communication skills. Writing articles for trade journals and blogs is going to develop effective written communication skills.
And if your people don’t have those skills, send them to Toastmasters. Pay for books and training courses. Send them on seminars where they can hone those skills. Pay for memberships in professional associations. And give them an outlet to express all this newfound knowledge.
Then unleash them on industry and allied conferences. Encourage them to write articles for trade journals or the company blog. Ask them to speak at conferences. Make sure people see your rock stars at different industry happenings, so they know your company is serious about thought leadership in that field.
But best of all, think about how much better your rock stars will be at communicating fpr your company as well. Not only will they be better at communicating internally, but they’ll be doing some great marketing and brand awareness building for your company too.
2) Your company looks like a great company for hiring them
One thing GE was known for during the Jack Welch years was for turning out great CEOs for other corporations. Partly because Jack wasn’t going to leave short of a military coup, but also because when GE executives reached the VP level, they were so good at their jobs that other corporations wanted them to run their own companies.
The same thing happened to the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s. (Read Moneyball by Michael Lewis. It’s not just a baseball book, it’s a primer on unorthodox-but-effective corporate management.) The A’s scooped up baseball players who didn’t fit the traditional baseball mode, helped them develop their best skills, and turned them into the kinds of ballplayers that other teams wanted badly. And the Oakland A’s became a stellar baseball team to boot, because they built the team around their players’ strengths.
So how cool will your company look when you start churning out superstar after superstar? How many CMOs can you create? Or HR directors? Or CFOs? Or national sales managers? Your company can be seen as an incubator for some of your industry’s leading talent if you just help them develop.
3) It’s free marketing
My friend Burt would go to 6 –10 conferences every year and share his knowledge. He used his clients as case studies, but he never made sales pitches. Instead, he just shared stories and ideas with a rapt audience for an hour — an audience filled with people who hired experts like him.
Now, imagine your sales and marketing people speaking at conferences, demonstrating their knowledge and skills about the problems your company solves. Imagine a water filter company educating coffee shop managers and brewers about pure water at a national coffee or craft brewery conference. You can educate people about the importance of pure water without ever talking about your product, but when people read the name in the bio, they can put two and two together.
When I speak at conferences, I talk about how to improve your writing, or the future of content marketing, or how to use novel writing techniques in business writing. I never do a sales pitch, but my expertise clearly speaks for itself. And I’ve gotten clients just by speaking at industry conferences.
So what happens if your marketing director speaks at an industry conference, or your HR director, or your operations manager, or even your CEO? You can have a big influence on hundreds of people without once mentioning your product or company just by sharing your knowledge. Now, what if you could unleash 10 rock stars on the different conferences of the industries you serve.
4) You’re creating rock stars for your company
“But people will improve their skills and they’ll want to leave our company,” is a common refrain among managers.
Seriously? You don’t want people to improve their skills? You’d be happy that average people with average skills are staying at your company for ten or fifteen years? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.
Let’s face two facts. First, people are going to leave your company. No one stays at a company very long anymore. That’s how employment works these days. So train them, help them develop, and wish them well when they leave, knowing you taught them enough that someone else wants them. And you’ll get their best work out of them while they’re there.
Second, the people who leave will become decision makers and influencers in other companies. What if your marketing manager leaves to become a VP of Marketing at one of your clients? What do you think she’ll tell her new colleagues if she leaves with bad feelings? Conversely, what will she tell her new colleagues if she leaves with your full support and gratitude?
(This is also why it’s not a bad idea to hire people in their 50s and 60s. Rather than turning them down because “they’re only going to be here for a few years,” recognize that no one says in their same position for 30 years anymore. Hire older workers and get some of the very best, most experienced people you’ll ever find. But that’s for another article.)
Developing rock stars for your company has many upsides and very few downsides. You’ll create top talent for your company, which means they’ll do their best work for you. They’ll be out promoting themselves (and thus, your company) with their speaking and writing. And they’ll moving up to positions of influence and decision making, which means you’ll have allies in other companies.
The only downside is that you may have people who are more well-known than you. But you can turn that around and become known as the company (or manager) who produces rock star after rock star. So start writing and speaking about how to create rock stars within your company, and guess what you can become. . .