When the Star Employee Leaves

It’s an issue that leaders may want to focus on now that pro football just lost one of its greatest players to retirement.

Executives who don’t follow football probably missed the news. Drew Brees, one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the National Football League, announced his retirement.

The record-setting quarterback’s departure may have little influence on most organizations, but it comes at a delicate time for businesses in general. With the job market rebounding quickly, do firms have a succession or backup plan if their own crucial, so-called pivotal employees leave? The worker might be a top software engineer who writes impeccable code, a salesperson who can close any deal, or a marketing guru who invents brilliant campaigns out of thin air. “They might not be at the tippy-top of organizations, but these roles could make or break a company’s future trajectory,” says Evelyn Orr, chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute.

The success that Brees’s team, the New Orleans Saints, had on the field over the last decade was, directly or indirectly, tied to him. He was a gunslinging signal-caller who pushed his team to multiple playoff appearances—including one championship—while inspiring hundreds of teammates to be better players. There’s plenty of research over the last several decades highlighting the impact star employees like him have on organizations. One study shows that for manufacturing or similar production jobs, top employees outperform average employees by a median margin of about 50%. The gap only gets wider for more complex jobs. Top trainers and sales managers, for example, outperform average peers by 85% to 100%.

Star employees and their impact are much more noticeable in the knowledge-intensive services industries of the 21st century than they were in the 20th century, too. Indeed, in an oft-cited 2013 Personnel Psychology article, psychologists Herman Aguinis and Ernest O’Boyle Jr. argue that existing management theories that don’t account for the presence of star employees and the power they wield need to be either revised or discarded.

Organizations, in sports or otherwise, first have to identify what those critical roles are, says Jed Hughes, a Korn Ferry vice chair and the firm’s global sector leader for sports. Then it’s critical to develop succession plans for these roles, and people, well before the star leaves. In the Saints’ case, the team brought in a rookie, Taysom Hill, in 2017, who could learn from Brees, then in 2020 signed a veteran quarterback, Jameis Winston, who also could benefit from being around the star quarterback. Barring injury, one of them will be the Saints’ starting quarterback next year. “You try, in successful programs, to develop from within,” Hughes says.

This type of planning may not always come naturally for organizations. For one thing, since these roles aren’t C-suite level, often there’s no board of directors group or other committee that is solely responsible for developing a succession plan. Plus, the reason the star employees became stars in the first place may be because they didn’t follow a traditional path. It isn’t always down to an employee’s skill with a spreadsheet or knowledge of a subject. Stars are the sparkly purple unicorns of an organization, Orr says. “There’s not a factory to create purple sparkly unicorns,” she says. Companies need to, while the star employee is around, identify the traits and behaviors that allow the employee to be a star in that pivotal role, then start identifying other employees who have similar traits and behaviors.

Organizations can also create dual career paths for high-potential, could-be stars, says Jane Stevenson, a Korn Ferry vice chair and global leader of the firm’s CEO Succession practice. Normally an organization might want to start grooming high-potential employees toward future roles as executives, but firms can also give star employees focused, challenging assignments, a particularly difficult software program to design, or a challenging sales account. “There’s progression based on competency and contribution rather than broadening, and you aren’t penalized if you don’t want to go into leadership,” Stevenson says.

Of course, companies can try to keep these stars from leaving, assuming they aren’t retiring. Experts say leaders should communicate to the star how much they value their vital role, proactively give them pay raises or promotions, and make counteroffers when rivals approach them. Even if the star doesn’t want to manage other people, he or she may appreciate the opportunity to mentor others, Orr says.