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What Motivates Superstar Performers?

I recently explored how Peter Drucker's views 'superstars' in a guest post for John Pearson.

by Mark P. Fisher

Managing the Superstar


“General Ulysses S. Grant was caught by surprise at Shiloh in Western Tennessee on April 6, 1862, by [Confederate] generals Johnston and Beauregard. The Battle of Shiloh lasted two days. Total casualties were approximately 23,000 men: 13,000 Union and 10,000 Confederate. After receiving reinforcements, Grant prevailed on April 7, but the sloppy assessment of the threat and the cost in lives brought demands on President Lincoln calling for Grant’s removal.

“Lincoln went to Grant’s defense, stating, ‘I can’t spare this man—he fights.’ Thus we see Lincoln correctly identifying what Grant could do, despite his limitations.

“Lincoln proved correct in his assessment of Grant’s strengths, which were needed to win the war, even at an awful cost in lives.

“For Lincoln, Grant’s deficiencies became subordinate to his strengths.”

FAVORITE DRUCKER INSIGHTS from Week 28, pages 219-224:

• AWARENESS: “Where there are peaks, there are valleys.” Star performers must be managed carefully lest they damage the spirit of the organization by their behavior and demands. 

• RECOGNITION: “Nothing makes as much impact on a sales force as to have a successful salesman stand up before his peers and tell them, ‘This is what has worked for me.’ And it does even more for the star performer. There is no sweeter recognition. . . ” 

• VALUE: “Stars are expensive. I always have to remind managers that the Bible says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain [Deuteronomy 25:4].’” 

• STRENGTHS: “One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. And yet most people try to concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. The time, energy, and resources should instead go into making a competent person into a star performer.”


Superstars can be found in many areas of an organization. Sales is but one.

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What is one of the most important decisions a VP of Sales and Marketing can make? Hire a superstar salesperson. Then, get out of the way.

Here is an example from my experience as VP of Sales and Marketing for a non-profit hospitality organization in Southern California. A competitive conference center announced it was going to be sold. Before long, I was talking with their young, superstar salesperson about joining our organization. We both knew incredible opportunity was on the horizon. (And that proved to be the case with a 92.7% increase over eight years.)

There was only one catch for each of us.
• The superstar needed a boss who understood him.
• The boss needed someone who could sell—within the culture.

How it worked: “Have fun, but get it done.

Set goals together. (3 Levels: Easy, Hard and Stretch Goals)
Set bonuses together. (Fear not if the superstar earns more than the boss.)
--Think NFL Coach Bill Belichick: $7.5 million
--NFL Quarterback Tom Brady: $14 million
Celebrate successes together. (Each time he rang the camp bell after selling $100,000 in a week, we met at the foosball table for a game.)
Deal with problems—but not necessarily together.
--When our culture didn’t like something, I stood in the gap.
--When we “over-promised and under-delivered,” I stood in the gap.
--When customers had “issues,” I stood in the gap.


• Write a note of thanks to your superstar(s). Be specific about what you appreciate and how they help grow the organization.


• Reevaluate your superstar’s performance, goals and rewards—together. Set stretch goals with amazing rewards.


• Search for a superstar if you don’t have one, or if you need more than one.

BONUS: Here are two great articles I stumbled upon while researching this assignment:
Article: “10 Things Really Amazing Bosses Do,” by Kevin Daum
Article: “How to Spot a Potential Star Salesperson: Six Qualities of Superstar Salespeople,” by Dave Kahle