Take a long, deep look at the IT teams within leading companies, and you’ll see that most boast at least a few tech superstars—wunderkinds who display genius when it comes to technology innovations and problem solving. These extraordinarily talented professionals can often steer a once-ailing company into a profitable venture, and their resumes don’t list certifications as much as they list breakthroughs in software, hardware, and e-business concepts.

Recruiting and retaining these superstars often dictates a delicate management dilemma for CIOs: Many high achievers require a unique management approach, yet no tech leader can afford to alienate other members of the tech staff to pay special attention to one particular employee.

The reality, although perhaps discomforting, is that superstars are often considered more valuable than other staff members. That assigned value often translates to letting superstars bend and break rules and work outside the normal management policies.

“Some superstars consider corporate protocol an unnecessary hindrance to getting their job done,” explained Bob Lambert, managing director, technology practice, at Christian & Timbers, an executive search firm in Irvine, CA.

So how should CIOs treat their talent base? Do you allow them to run their own show or insist that they follow the rules like everyone else? There are two schools of thought on this. An obvious, and radical, approach is to give superstars free reign. Achieving true innovation often means hiring talented techies who often shun corporate culture, said Robert I. Sutton, author of Weird Ideas That Work (The Free Press; $18.20). Sutton is professor of management science and engineering at Stanford’s Engineering School. His book is full of unconventional advice that most CIOs would understandably reject.

“Achieving innovation often means getting out of the way of superperformers,” said Sutton. That means allowing them to defy corporate protocol, miss meetings, or work in their offices undisturbed 12 hours a day—essentially doing whatever’s necessary to stimulate and support the creative process.

“Many creative people prefer to spend time alone with their thoughts and ideas,“ explained Sutton. “If they’re enveloped in a difficult project, let them work through the night or on weekends so they get the job done to their satisfaction.”

Nolan Bushnell, former CEO of the Atari Corporation, encouraged superstars to work at their own rhythm. David Kelley, IDEO founder, advised CIOs to just stay out of the way of superstars.

The tech leaders’ advice is right on target, said Sutton, as superstars may shun teamwork and lack social graces, but it’s small consolation for creativity and innovation. But Lambert does acknowledge that the special management strategy for superstars isn’t the norm today.

Allowing total freedom, though, is more the exception than the rule these days, he admitted.

“Superstars ought to be encouraged, but it’s a big mistake letting them do anything they want,” Sutton said. “Most people poke fun at bureaucracy, yet it serves a critical function because it provides structure and rules. A company can’t exist without rules—for everyone from the CEO to the loading dock supervisor. No one should be exempt.”

Without rules and set expectations, the workforce environment can get tense, he explained. “Many companies arbitrarily let anyone with an exceptional performance record create their own schedules. But that’s hardly fair to the other workers, many of whom also have exceptional skills. That could cause dissension in the ranks. It’s common for technology companies to have several employees who have extraordinary skills.”

Who are the superstars?
In order to provide solid management across the board, Lambert advised CIOs to first clearly define what constitutes a superstar or high performer. He suggested answering the following questions:

  • Does this person’s level of talent truly make him or her special?
  • What kind of accomplishment record must this person have?
  • How much freedom are you willing to give him or her?

“There has to be some consistency before you break someone out of the pack,” he explained.

Before creating any special working or management conditions, you should also consider an employee’s value within the organization, said Ruth Fornell, chief marketing officer at Teradata, an NCR division in Dayton, OH. Fornell believes that supporting superstars should not be to the detriment of the organization at large.

“I ask myself, ‘What is the cost of supporting this person?’ and ‘What is the impact this person is having on the rest of the organization?’” In short, Fornell’s decision to let the exceptional employee break the rules is based on bottom-line thinking. “You must be practical,” she said, adding, “the organization is stronger and more important than one person.”

Superstars need rules too
Brian Stern, president of Shaker Consulting, an HR consulting company in Cleveland, said it’s a mistake to think that superperformers don’t need or want structure.

“Like everyone else, they should know that if they want to move up the ladder, they have to play by the rules,” he said, explaining that superstar advancement should be at least partially based upon following corporate protocol. “This means attending meetings and working in teams, none of which will stifle their creativity. In fact, it most probably will boost it,” he added.

A key element in successfully managing a team that boasts one or more superstars is making sure everyone is a team player, said Dale Stephens, an independent consultant specializing in productivity improvement and a former VP and CIO at a regional grocery chain in Albuquerque, NM. Stephens has avoided hiring superstars who weren’t team players and who lacked a positive attitude.

“Bright techies who have a ‘can do’ attitude and a willingness to share knowledge are a great asset to any team,” he explained. “The team’s level of productivity, morale, and knowledge always improves with this type of person on the team.”

His formula for managing superstars is simple, yet not always easy, he admitted.

“Find bright people who have a positive attitude and a team approach. Give them the tools, training, direction, and freedom to get the job done. Finally, give them the recognition (public praise as well as the appropriate compensation) that they deserve.”

All of which is actually sound advice for managing the entire tech team.