The search for superstars—from the ball field to the boardroom—is a uniquelyobsession. Most recently, school reformers have been promoting the idea that filling every classroom with “great” teachers—and, of course, getting rid of all the “deadbeats”—will solve the problem of American education. Never mind that even those of us who were fortunate enough to attend great schools were lucky if we had a handful of great teachers in a lifetime!
Yet, now George Anders has published yet another management book about the quixotic search for superstar employees. The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Before Anybody Else Does promises to “help you become much more effective at spotting talent,” with lessons from the U.S. Army, Teach for America etc.
The implication is, of course, that filling your company, sports team or school with superstars is the answer to getting ahead of the competition. Of course, real genius, like that of Steve Jobs, is really rare. The truth is that most organizations—the good, the bad and the mediocre—are filled with employees with a range of talent. Years ago, the statistician and management thinker W. Edwards Deming noted that the best organizations will probably have more high-performing employees because they are better at hiring and training—and at bringing out the best in their troops.
Another truth is that, most great organizations are full of people who have failed somewhere else. Brockton High, the largest high school in Massachusetts, which was on the brink of failure just a decade ago, achieved a remarkable turnaround by focusing on a winning literacy strategy that relied on retraining the very same teachers who had worked at the school during its most troubled years. Similarly, Toyota Motor Company— notwithstanding its most recent problems with quality and safety—became the world’s premier automaker by focusing, not on hiring stars, but on perfecting a systematic strategy that emphasized continuous improvement and learning at all levels of the company, including blue-color autoworkers, some of whom had once worked for the ever-shrinking Big Three. Even Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s’ legendary manager, built a winning team with players who had failed or aged out of the competition by focusing on their undervalued skills.
What Toyota, the Oakland As and the Brockton High have in common is strong management, a great strategy and teamwork. A search for stars has nothing to do with it.
Still, our mythic belief in the power of star talent has led the best companies to pursue strategies that aim to reward “star” performers and to punish laggards, sometimes with absurd consequences. Years ago, for example, , even as it was marketing its employee-hiring and -training expertise, instituted a forced-ranking scheme that required all supervisors to identify and reward the “top” 10 percent of its employees and to give the “bottom” 10 percent a failing grade and just three months to improve their performance or be fired. It was no coincidence that the system was instituted during an economic downturn, and was widely seen as a way to get rid of employees without violating the company’s no-layoff pledge. (IBM’s bell curve violated—as it usually does—basic statistical rules: Bell curves only work when they are applied to large random samples—not to relatively small, carefully selected groups of employees.) Some IBM supervisors got around the problem by creating a “designated dummy” system, by which employees took turns getting a low ranking during performance reviews. Following an employee revolt, Big Blue eventually modified its forced-ranking system, but remained wedded to individualized pay and rankings.
Ironically, the rush to identify—and pay—star performers has now made it’s way from board rooms and ball fields to the education reform movement. Eric Hanushek, an economist at the Hoover Institution, has even suggested that schools rank teachers and fire the bottom 10 percent—either unaware, or indifferent to, IBM’s failure to institute a similar plan or the growing importance of teamwork in schools, which is undermined by ranking schemes.
How much better off would schools and companies be if managers and pundits focused as much attention on team building and strategy as they do on the quixotic quest for superstars?