How to Catch a Rising Star - and Not Get Burned

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You know the type: They're your firm's rising stars. They're the people named as team leaders. They're picked for plumb projects and seen chatting in the vice president's office. As for you, you're good at your job, but you're not standing out. Does that mean you can't rise along with a star? Not necessarily.

The Rules of the Game

In an ideal world, professionals can attach themselves to flourishing peers, learn from their strengths, contribute to their successful projects, and develop relationships with those who might one day be able to help them get ahead.

However, don't get the idea you can simply ride somebody else's coattails. It makes no sense to "just coast to success based on the success of another," says Doug Rickart, a division director for Robert Half Finance and Accounting in Minneapolis. "It becomes quite obvious you're spending time with someone just to get yourself noticed. That's meaningless."

Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Boston-based Human Resource Solutions, says teaming up with a corporate star can be useful if you do it carefully. "It's one of many strategies to get ahead," she says. Among other things, observing them in action and learning from their mistakes - and how they recover from them - is a great way "to advance yourself." But, she cautions, "you still have to take care of yourself and your qualifications."

Of course, many a hot shot has tumbled from grace. "At some point that star will fall - it's very hard to stay on top forever," Matuson observes. "You have to be prepared, because you might fall with them." On the other hand, "they might take you with them to a new company," she says. "Which is not necessarily a bad thing."

Coattails Worth Riding?

If you're looking for someone whose team you can join, you should choose carefully. Matuson suggests keeping an eye out for people with the motivation, focus and willingness to take on projects, even mundane ones. And, she says, the kind of person you're seeking usually does have a certain sparkle. "It becomes evident quite early on that a person just sticks out," she says. "They have a good circle of influence and people tend to listen when they speak. They're not just team players, they're leaders."

However, Rickart urges people to look beyond immediate star power for characteristics that are more long-lasting. "There are always those people fresh out of Harvard MBA who light the world on fire, and that's great," he says. "You do want to have an eye on what's made them successful immediately, but you also want to look for the Warren Buffet of your organization," who over the years has weathered market dips and layoffs.

It also helps if you genuinely like the person, says Matuson, respecting them both as an individual and a professional. "Be authentic," she says. "The worst thing is if you believe (the rising star) is cut-throat and dishonest," and yet you try to emulate their career anyway.

Making the Move

The cynical might say that business can be a lot like grade school: In either place, no one likes a suck-up. So how do you attach yourself to the teacher's pet without getting your lights knocked out?

Carly Drum, managing director of Drum Associates, a New York-based search and career coaching firm that specializes in financial services, has this advice: "Find out what sort of needs they have and figure out how to benefit that person. You're being a pest if you just latch onto their coattails. You have to benefit both sides of equation."

One way to get to know these people - and to let them get to know you - is to join committees, teams and projects in which they're involved. Ask supervisors to identify people who've had successful runs in your company, or to identify the sort of employee qualities that resonate with the organization.

It's lonely at the top, Drum points out, and superstars often need professional friends. "If they feel everyone is targeting them and 'knocking down the good ones,' you might just be the person they can trust and bounce ideas off of," she says. "If you can figure out how you can help that individual, nine times out of 10 they'll welcome the help, and they'll also really respect the fact you're not scared of them."

And don't forget that just because you're not the superstar at the moment isn't the end of the world.

"Sometimes it's intimidating when people don't think they're strong and don't have certain titles," says Drum. "But if you're strong and competent, eventually you're going to get recognition."

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