5 ways to keep your rockstar employees happy


Rock on The Googleplex, Google’s (s GOOG) corporate headquarters in Mountain View California, is legendary for its perks. Employees have access to unlimited free meals, haircuts, dry cleaning, massages, and even onsite medical care.

Yet earlier this year, when Google interviewed its employees about what they valued most at work, none of these extravagant benefits made the top of the list. Neither did salary. Instead, employees cited access to “even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.”

Tangibles like salary and benefits aren’t enough to guarantee that your best and brightest creatives will remain engaged. Indeed, a recent landmark study by Arnold Worldwide of 3,000 employees and 500 executive leaders across a range of communication and advertising firms found that 30 percent of the advertising workforce say they’ll be gone from their job within 12 months.

Take Jill, an outstanding, experienced copy editor whom Agency X recently recruited at considerable expense from one of its chief rivals. Despite her outward success, she’s unsure how she’s performing, where she stands in the company, and how she fits into the overall goals of the agency. Her pay is great, she loves the Friday office happy hour, but over time, she finds herself feeling demotivated by the lack of communication, and checks out.

The loss of star performers like Jill doesn’t just leave a talent vacuum to fill; it also leaves a gaping hole in the bottom line. Indeed, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal calculated that it typically costs a company about half a position’s annual salary to recruit for that job ¾ and several times that if the position requires rare skills.

So how can your company keep its stars engaged? It comes down to creating a culture of communication — one in which employees know where the organization is headed, how they fit into these plans, and what’s expected of them. Here are a few key strategies your agency can employ to make this happen.

1. Create a culture of education

The average Starbucks barista gets more training in a year than the average employee in a communications company, according to the Arnold Worldwide study.

For employees, the single most important motivational factor was the ability to learn. Yet the study found a huge disconnect when it comes to perceptions about company training. While 90 percent of employees say they learn by figuring things out on their own, only 25 percent of executives think that employees learn independently.

To keep employees motivated, agencies need to build a culture of learning, where employees leave more enriched at the end of each day.

2. Provide regular, consistent feedback

Employee feedback is a critical part of the education process, and shouldn’t just be relegated to the annual review. To be effective, feedback needs to be specific and actionable. But that’s not always how it works.

In a study by Leadership IQ, 53 percent of employees said that when their boss praises excellent performance, the feedback does not provide enough useful information to help them repeat it. And 65 percent responded that when their boss criticizes poor performance, it doesn’t provide enough useful information to help them correct the issue.

Feedback, both positive and constructive, is most effective when given right away. Negative feedback given a month after the fact can lead to a passive-aggressive environment in which an employee feels powerless to act on the advice.

Think of it this way: no one wants to go a full day knowing their price tag was hanging from the back of their shirt, or the remnants of the salad they had for lunch were still stuck in their teeth. If an employee does something well, that activity should be encouraged. And if there’s room for improvement, they should be given the opportunity to learn for their next task.

3. Set time aside for weekly 1:1 meetings

At first, most employees and managers will cringe at the idea of yet another meeting. But instituting weekly 1:1 meetings can be the most important step you take to retaining your top performers.

In its quest to build a better boss, Google discovered that its worst managers weren’t consistent in their 1:1 meetings; some focused on meeting with people who were underperforming, while others met primarily with the top performers.

Consequently, Google implemented the best practice of 1:1 meetings with all team members.

These meetings can cover anything and everything from upcoming projects to the latest client news. With each week, discussions about goals, feedback, and concerns become a lot more natural unlike the awkward, starchy conversations during annual reviews. Over time, it becomes easier for both sides to raise potential problems and deal with them early on, before they fester into something destructive.

4. Manage the grunt work properly

Not every project is going to be awesome. That’s just the way business works. And chances are your employees understand this.

However, managers need to handle such projects responsibly and that means a few things. Boring projects should always be balanced with more stimulating work. Employees should always be told how any grunt works fits into the overall needs of the company (“If we do a good job on x, we’re hoping the client will give us their cool launch next year”). And specific parameters should always be set for the boring stuff ¾ meaning employees should always see light at the end of the tunnel.

5. Publicly acknowledge good work

All too often, managers see motivation in terms of financial compensation, but money is far from the only way to effectively reward talented employees. A 2009 survey by McKinsey Quarterly asked which incentives were the most effective in motivating employees. The top two responses were: “Praise and commendation from immediate manager” (67 percent), and “Attention from leaders” (62 percent).

Praise and commendation go a long way in making employees feel noticed and valued. And the impact of a pat on the back is multiplied when it’s done publicly. Through public commendations, employees not only feel the support and respect of their manager, but the entire organization as well (including top-level executives). Creating a framework for “social recognition” will encourage a culture of appreciation throughout your firm.

Keeping your rockstar employees on board has always been important, and don’t think that economic uncertainty will keep your employees around. Your company has worked hard to recruit some bright people and great talent; make sure an opaque work environment doesn’t drive them into the arms of your competition.

Learn more about how to keep remote workers happy and your team collaborating at GigaOM’s Net:Work event on December 8, 2011.

Daniel Debow is co-founder and co-CEO of Rypple, a social performance management platform.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Esparta


GPS Creative

Nice post. This is good advice for keeping rock star employees and for nurturing other employees who might become rock stars if they felt properly engaged.

Jens Hausherr

Managing the grunt work by referring to a brighter future will not do if the big future prospects never come true… Worse if a pattern of unfulfilled promises becomes visible – then this solution is more than deterring.

Tim Milburn

Love the education point. I’m currently trying to convince my leadership to invest in more conferences and less consultants. I think it’s of greater value to send our people out to learn rather than bring someone in to teach.

Hugh Watson

Great article and I couldn’t agree more. Public praise of individual and team efforts have been my best tool for building healthy teams. Praise for non-project work, such as superior customer support, must always be part of the mix. My favorite way to reinforce this is to have the team members who helped get a project done stand. When those in support roles don’t stand, I ask one of the team members what would have happen if the support people hadn’t kept the costumers happy. The answer is invariably one of the project team would have been pulled from the project. When I get the whole team standing, I use the old line “he also serves who keep the home fires burning” to reinforce the point.

When it comes to needed improvement, I use guidance from my grandfather. He always said “when someone needs their rear kicked, it’s best to use their own foot”. This means making it clear to the person how their poor performance has hurt the team, the project, and the company as a whole can make then examine their own performance more effectively, than just explaining the poor performance alone.

David Rea

#5 “Praise and commendation go a long way…” – this is very true, and the opposite behavior from superiors can be as detrimental as a commendation can be helpful. If a group leader or manager takes credit for his reports’ hard work, he/she will erode the group’s confidence and sense of value. I’ve worked for two managers who (driven by a big-company culture that rewarded self-promotion) constantly used “I” and “my” in reference to the team’s responsibilities and achievements, rather than “we” and “our”. We’d leave every meeting, design review or status update with a sense that our efforts were disappearing into a recognitionless vacuum.

Even when confronted about his choice of words, one of these managers defended it as “taking ownership” of problems. I left the company not long after.

Jeff G

Very interesting and timely article. I suppose, had my current boss practiced some of the suggestions in it, I would not be leaving at the end of next week and going to a competing company that sought me out and made me an offer I could not refuse. My current boss (owner of the company I work for) has now offered me almost everything I was asking for (my future employer exceeded it). It’s so interesting to find out how much $$$ and perks you truly are worth, only when you hand in your resignation.


I turned down a $10k/yr raise offer from a competitor because my current boss does all the things mentioned in this article.


Here’s an idea: stop calling something as infantile as “rockstars” and maybe they won’t trash the furniture and urinate from the balcony.

Dee Gardner

Keeping rockstars and making other employees rockstars is as simple as listening. Listen to what the employee needs and wants, explain that you can get them that if they get the company what it needs. When they perform reward them. Then listen again.


Great piece, thanks for sharing. Beautifully presented. “Manage the grunt work properly” is perhaps the most overlooked of the 5 employee engagement strategies you highlight. Never under estimate the importance of ensuring that work has value, however mundane some tasks may seem.


Accuracy of feedback is also important. while working at a large discount brokerage, we had an IT SVP who was very free and public with his priase. But it frequently went to a person who he had brought in from his previous company. And who the rest of the technical staff doubted could do anything more technical than take an IBM white papaer and create a new cover sheet with his name on it.

Praising those who are NOT doing a good job is far more damaging to morale than simply failing to praise those who are doing a good job.

Cheryl Friscia

This is an excellent article. Having come from corporate america, I wish that many other companies would adopt the strategies outlined here.


Good article. I work in IT, which is known for not being recognized, so we don’t expect pats on the back or a banner hanging over my cube saying that I did a good job. I agree with acknowledgement of a good job, just don’t personally feel that it needs to be a big deal. Team meetings, 1-on-1’s, and department acknoledgement is fine for me. =)


Good call on the “public recognition” issue Rex. I know several hard core geek/creative types who eschew all forms of public recognition. They would rather just get a private adda-boy and a Think-Geek/Bestbuy gift card. :) This is why our managers (at our company) are now starting to collect employee profiles that include “preferred type of recognition” (among many other personality traits like Strengths, etc). Good topics.



Thanks, really core stuff, but couldn’t have said it better myself. My last 4 organisations were either coming out of this type of transition, entering it (latest), realised they needed it but couldn’t back themselves(previous) or smack in the middle of it.
Its not easy to do as most of these are internal/back office (non-billing) initiatives and someone in finance will scream loud enough, often enough to sour of these initiatives, making it hard for the org to embrace it within the culture.
Cultural change is +%$’n hard.

Rex Card

I like this post because it is exactly what star performers want. 1×1’s are absolutely key to getting hard work done as it improves 2 things that are key to project work (relationships and communication). Feedback is lacking everywhere I have previously worked (except my current employer) and the annual reviews are often focused on the last quarter. Want to build an awesome work environment – Master the art of 1 on 1’s, feedback, coaching and delegation and you will see your company change from the inside out. Want to find out how to do this pragmatically check out managertools.com (just attended a training and these guys are spot on). The only gotcha above is to note that ‘publicly acknowledge good work’ does not mean calling someone up before everyone (that is actually a de-motivator for some folks), but rather make sure they get credit through some other channel. But of course you only truly know what motivates your directs if you know them (which is what 1×1’s are about).

Jonathan Salazar

Good post. I am agree with these five ways. I always been believed that the recognized work, feedback, getting in touch and the education, and many others, are crucial to raise the employees to the next level beside the company, it is something that project not only internally but to the external environment too. And all that effort could be called as good standing company or good reputation construction.


Of course employees of Google do not worry about pay – they are alway being compensated well. Drop the pay to 40k-60k and ask them again.

I had most of these article points at an old job but the pay didn’t keep up, promised bonuses never happened, etc. it was hard to leave because of the people I was around and the way I was treated by them, but money talks….


The first point is vital in my opinion. Quite often, i heard people say “I’d like to join XX’s team because I can learn if i work in XX’s team”

Colin Drew

This is all well and good but also assumes an equitable salary. However when you feel the financial pinch with the very basics of existence then salary is not just important, it’s an essential matter of survival. Salary may not be a motivator but lack of it is a debilitating de-motivator.
At HP Technology Services, workers have not received increases in up to 7 years. So forget about free haircuts, we are taking about barely living.


It appears that there is some truth in what you are saying and your views but sadly this has led to become a means of acceptance, not only to certain people or those in financial struggle but by the overall company view.
If I may use HP Technology Services for example as you mentioned has not received increases in up to 7 years. Despite this statement being flawed and more on the lines of rarely give increases and if they do slight increases, nonetheless I believe that you are missing the point of this article which leads me to question.
What does HP do for to obtain rockstar employees? Do they implement any of the above 5 mentioned ways (culture, feedback, 1on1 meetings, manage, acknowledgement)?
Salary does have an impact and plays an importance but it does not just stop there, or does it for HP? There are alot of other ways that not only motivates employees but creates a pleasant environment and desire to work for a company which will automatically spark productivity.

To conclude, I think that this is a great article and its vital that companies should review ways to deal and maintain happy employees.


There is some truth in what you are saying and your views but sadly this has led to become a means of acceptance, not only to certain people and those in financial struggle, but by the overall company view.
If I may use HP Technology Services for example as you mentioned has not received increases in up to 7 years. Despite this statement being flawed and more on the lines of rarely give increases and if they do slight increases, nonetheless I believe that you are missing the point of this article which leads me to question.
What does HP do for to obtain rockstar employees? Do they implement any of the above 5 mentioned ways (culture, feedback, 1on1 meetings, manage, acknowledgement)?
Salary does have an impact and plays an importance but it does not just stop there, or does it for HP? There are alot of other ways that not only motivates employees but creates a pleasant environment and desire to work for a company which will automatically spark effectiveness and productivity.

To conclude, I think that this is a great article and companies should review ways to deal and maintain happy employees.

guest star

I concur 100%. Survey results that say employees never mention salary at the top of their list of motivators must be flawed. Who wants to work for a low salary as long as the managers give you feedback? Pay freezes, salary cuts, benefit cuts,inequitable/favoritism-based bonuses, etc. are the top reasons people will flee their current employer as soon as they find a better gig.


Bingo! Also I find the idea of 1:1 meetings weekly to be a bit much. Just tell me when I’m doing well, tell me when I need to improve but having regularly scheduled meetings feels too formal and review-like.

Lee Engelhardt

Agreed, appreciation etc are definitely good and if you assume a good pay structure exists, these are the things you do to go above and beyond and keep those rock stars but readers need to understand that this stuff is indeed all AFTER you pay your employees a decent salary. Which, honestly, is itself a form of feedback and acknowledgement of where a person stands as an employee in the company. I’m not going to get into ceo pay because there’s reasonable/proper and then there’s just stupid. But not paying your star a decent wage? They’ll get the message they aren’t really that valued, no matter how many “Great work!”s they hear.

Philippe Zitoun

Who pays for that? Easy to use Google as a reference. Make a survey at the shop close to your home.

Lee Lepkowski

Everyone in the company pays when it doesn’t happen. For the shop close to home it may seem like a catch 22 but this stuff is real and powerful. It’s not easy until you are doing it and look back at how you struggled all those years, and lost all that time and money, without it – at the time believing that was the best you (everyone in the company) could do. Change is typically not easy and it has to start with the leaders at the top.

Carolina Marin

I believe 1:1 meetings are great but in the company that I work for, managers have to do it in their extra time, not as part of daily basis (company doesnt want to pay for that), so you can imagine that nobody do it, pretty sad :(

Sheena Rajan

Great post, I would add giving the employees a medium to show off their expertise. Maybe blog posts, a company twitter account, etc. It gives your employees power to express their opinion as well as show your customers that your company houses a group of talented HUMANs.

david k waltz

Culture of education is interesting in conjunction with “strengths finder” and ” good to great” books, where they propose hiring for strength, character, values, etc. rather than focusing on skills, since these can be taught. The two together seem like the potential start of a virtuous cycle.

Abel Pardo Fernández

Very interesting post. At the end, all what people wants is simply to fell their minutes of glory, one kind word or knowing there’s someone covering the back.

Koshy Samuel, MBA

change the way we work and change the ways we deal with employees
the new generation and world expect something different but all realtime and regular, consistent feedback


I think your last point is very important. In a world where everyone should be valued, and companies where everyone is assumed to do a good job, star workers are often neglected because bosses feel they shouldn’t always mention the same name. I feel that if someone does a good job, their names should be repeatedly mentioned. Not doing so makes these workers disgruntled.

Tyler Kendall

Thank you for this piece. One thing I’ve learned is that you have to be willing to ask questions to get things done. I just finished a book by management consultant Greg Bustin called “That’s a Great Question.” He shares more than 500 great questions that effective leaders use in their organizati­ons. http://www.bustin­.com

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