How do you respond when you lose a rockstar from your team?

Every startup is fuelled by the energy and talent of the team, the individuals and collective sum-of-the-parts are vital ingredients to startup success. I’ve always taken to heart the advice of Ben Horowitz, author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, who said: We knew that if we took care of the people, the products, and the profits – in that order – we had a chance of success.

And remember, there is no such thing as a solo entrepreneur. Nobody who’s ever scaled a business from the ground up did it alone. In fact, left to themselves, they wouldn’t have a business. The people you choose to work with have the ability to make or break your venture, so it is imperative that you are selective and strategic about your team. 

So how do you choose the right team members for your startup? Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer, recruited a boat crew to travel to Antarctica using this ad: Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return is doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success. It worked, he built an outstanding team of individuals, not a team of outstanding individuals.

Startup teams must move quickly through the forming-storming-norming-performing stages of team development identified by Tuckman, so alignment on vision and values, and having good social skills are vital. If these two attributes don’t exist, team members can begin to feel like rats in a maze, and not see where they’re going, and quickly the team breaks down. While some chaos can be good for innovation, you want to avoid wasted energy and people not utilising their talents fully. Whilst like Shackleton the focus is on building a team, individual rockstars gives leverage.You’re looking for special people who cancreate 10x more leverage – ‘moonshot thinkers’ – too.

And there is a rockstar currently dominating the conversations at the Rugby World Cup. All the headlines have been about France’s superstar captain Antoine Dupont, who has had surgery on a fractured cheekbone sustained in the 96-0 win over Namibia. The expectations is that he will return to France’s squad but no update on how long he will be unavailable. Dupont went off in the 46th minute after Johan Deysel made a head-on-head tackle, and was sent off.

Writing on social media Dupont said: Wounded but not sunk. Show must go on. Can’t wait to return to the squad, and with pool games a formality, the focus is on the quarter-finals weekend of 14-15 October, the semi-finals the weekend after, and the final on Saturday, 28 October. Many players have suffered a similar maxillo-zygomatic fracture to the France talisman, and I would be really surprised if we don’t see him later in the tournament, but at the same time fingers crossed. Head coach Fabien Galthié’ expects him to play again in the competition. 

If not, the loss of Dupont would be a severe blow to France’s chances of winning the World Cup for the first time. He was the World player of the year in 2021 and voted Six Nations player of the tournament in 2022 and 2023.  France is already without fly-half Romain Ntamack because of injury. Les Bleus could face top-ranked Ireland or the defending champions, South Africa, in the quarterfinals. France have won 27 of 31 Tests with Dupont in their ranks and lost four of 11 in his absence.

The loss of Dupont reminded me of when Jony Ive, the chief architect of ground-breaking and distinctive designs from the iMac to the iPhone, announced he was leaving Apple in 2019. Like Dupont he was the rock star who brought vision, energy, and inspiration to the team. Ive’s work seeded a tech revolution that has changed our lives.

He was the key influencer on the simplistic designs of the most sought-after gadgets on the planet, curator and custodian of the Apple aesthetic impulse that dovetailed with a business model based on frequent upgrades. Ive’s mark is on everything Apple builds, from the airy, minimalist chic of its retail stores to seminal devices like the iPhone and iPad, newer pieces like the Apple Watch, the HomePod and Airpods.

Like Dupont, you can’t understate the impact Ive had. His physical designs contributed to Apple’s twenty-year growth via their marketing, where product design was a significant part of Apple’s brand. Ive was obsessed with the idea that the look and feel of a product was as important as the technology inside. He gave Apple desirability. He stripped away layers of clunky technological design and created these incredible smooth shiny objects with rounded edges and fewer buttons we now take for granted.

Like Dupont’s absence, Ive’s departure did not immediately impact. France still has a very capable squad, and Apple still has talented designers.  However, like Dupont, Ive left a yawning gap, his fingerprints deeply woven within Apple’s core – he was Job’s co-founder of the second incarnation of Apple.

So how, like the French rugby team and Apple, does a startup come to terms with the exit of a rockstar member of the team, a leader in terms of skills, experience and impact on the spirit, confidence, and capability? How do you overcome the vacuum? The immediate concern is the impact on culture and loss of knowledge. Will this trigger a downward spiral impact on the dynamics and confidence of the team, and their productivity? Here are some key steps to consider addressing the issue.

1. Be open and honest with everyone The business needs the straight story, authenticity in the face of what is clearly ‘bad news’ is what builds trust. It’s also important to be candid with everyone. Be clear that the departure is unwanted but we have a solution to make it through the turbulence.

Move quickly to stop any false rumours, but don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. If losing this team member is a big blow for you, tell them. Move on from the negative emotion of the moment by sharing your feelings and see the challenge as an opportunity.

2. Think it through but do it quickly Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When you get big news, you have to make big plans, and fast. Don’t get bogged down by emotion and stall from thinking about the next steps. Folk in the business don’t immediately need to see a plan, but they do need to know there will be a plan, and quickly.

3. Ask your inner team for help Your team wants to help, they want to come together to overcome this challenge. You don’t have to take this on by yourself. It’s OK to say I’m really sad to be losing Jo, and it’s going to be tough to get through the next few months without her. I’ll need your help to explore all the options and come up with a plan by the end of the week. Show that you’re open to input for your proposed plan.

4. Build consensus around a plan and implement it Many startup leaders fall into the trap of thinking they need to express boundless enthusiasm and confidence at all times, and always have a solution in-hand. If you come up with a plan by yourself and simply tell everyone else what it is, you’ll have less committed buy in.

Gather ideas from your team and co-create the plan with them. Focus on turning a negative into a positive. Ask for their input on how this situation provides an opportunity to do things better. As your team feels ownership, they’ll be more involved in overcoming the challenges posed by the loss of the key team member

5. Don’t assume you must instantly replace My preference is always to promote from within, if possible, and now is the time to stay calm and think, not leap into a quick, knee jerk reaction. As the enterprise evolves, it’s imperative that you take time to evaluate the future options now available on role, skills, and structure – a potential new hire could help the company with their fresh perspective – and only then determine how the role should be defined, who should fill it, and when. It’s better to make the right decision quickly than a wrong decision fast.

6. Discover your team’s hidden strengths A team may already have the resources it needs to still be successful; it may simply require some creativity and a return to basics. What talents have been hidden or lying dormant? What skills have never been shared or developed? Losing a star performer may provide a way to better engage, promote and retain others 

7. See this as an opportunity for skills development and growth Every person has an inner drive to grow and develop, instead of viewing the loss as a vacuum, reframe the situation as an opportunity to upskill the current team to a new level.

8. Don’t default to the most negative scenario Ive started his career by designing toilets and toothbrushes and ended up giving us the most profitable product in history. He is assured of his legacy. How Apple moved forward with their strategy without his influence was a challenge many organisations face when they lose their own rockstar. They seem to have responded well.

As part of the announcement of Ive’s departure, Apple said Ive would be around to provide continuity and strategic input via his consulting company, LoveFrom, and had a multi-year $100m agreement in place. The relationship ended in July 2022. Life moves on.

Dupont hasn’t ‘left’ in the same way as Ive did, but for fully departing ‘rockstar’ employees, there are two further considerations.

9. Wish the former team member well privately and in public It’s not productive to be hurt or offended when someone leaves, on the other hand, you have everything to gain by parting on good terms. When a key team member leaves, understand and support the decision that’s right for him or her, thank them for their contribution, and wish them well. Do this privately and publicly.

10. Keep in touch, maintain respect for the individual As a result of this approach, some of my best colleagues have returned to work with me, whilst others have become advocates.People leave for all sorts of reasons, many will have nothing to do with you or your company, and everything to do with the life circumstances of the team member at that moment in time.

What impact will Dupont’s absence have on the French team?Baptiste Couilloud will be his likely replacement for their next game versus Italy, but Dupont’s all-round performance is second-to-none and will no doubt be missed. Couilloud  is an efficient player, albeit with a slightly looser, more independent game, more likely to take a quick tap penalty than Dupont and is a proficient goal kicker, while Dupont has more control over structure, box kicking and bringing forwards onto the ball.

France is a confident side at the moment, their strength in depth is impressive which suggests even losing someone as important as Dupont, is unlikely to affect their flow. If France crumble and lose direction through the loss of Dupont, it would be a surprise, but this by far the greatest test they have faced in Galthié’s tenure.

If you lose your rockstar, apply the ten tips above to your own situation, and follow the next few French games to reflect upon how to keep your startup team performing.

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