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The curse of the Golden Child

If you have managed or lead teams for any length of time, you will have come across an employee or two who seems perfect; one who appears to be just a few months of your brilliant mentoring away from setting the world on fire.

Who knows, sometimes you might even be right.

The point is, you get the feeling that if you challenge them, mentor them, give them difficult but interesting assignments and the resources they need, they’ll shine. Your boss will acknowledge that you have discovered (and helped produce) a star, and you own star will rise; everybody wins!

The thing is that you may indeed be onto something, and in any event it is true that promising employees need engaging challenges and interesting work, unless you want them to turn from promising employees to the leading lights of your competition. One of the most important tasks a leader has is to find ways to develop and retain good staff.

What you cannot do, unless workplace revolt is a career goal, is to treat the potential superstar as a ‘Golden Child’, one who can do no wrong and who holds your eternal favour.

Their potential and ability can never be allowed to grant them a free pass, to let them dodge the mundane but necessary stuff and to excuse any failings they may have. No leader can afford Teflon favourites who get the pick of the good work and who skate through being held to different and more lax rules from everyone else. Just a hint of this can, in weeks, destroy a good culture that took years to establish.

It isn’t always easy to avoid this, as inevitably you will be closer to some staff than others, and your staff will in any case have different skill sets and capabilities, which will govern how far they go. What leaders need to ensure is that they run a meritocracy, and that nobody, through their apparent talent and potential, becomes untouchable. There are a couple of things that can help leaders avoid this situation though:

  • No head starts – Everyone has to get the same chance at the good and challenging work. If you have genuinely identified a star, they won’t need help to shine.
  • Find a mirror – Make sure you have a mentor, second-in-charge or colleague who will honestly critique what is happening, and specifically ask them about your treatment of your star performers or favourites.
  • Everyone washes the dishes – By that I mean that everyone has to do the boring and unpleasant tasks at some point. Nobody is exempt from that, and sharing the misery is a good way to puncture any concerning egos.
  • Communicate with your team – Leadership always comes down to this. If you have good lines of communication with your staff, they will let you know if you have inadvertently started pandering to a Golden Child.

Real leaders make sure everyone is getting a fair go, and it is an existential issue. People who think a co-worker is getting a rails ride probably won’t complain to you – they’ll just find a better spot and leave. That costs, and damages team culture; The Golden Child was a terrible movie and is an even worse leadership strategy, so avoid having favourites and let merit be your guide.

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