When hiring we sometimes focus too much on the individual, and not enough on how they will fit in with the existing staff. An extreme version of this is to hunt and low for a “star.” Each us of may define “star” slightly differently depending on the context. For example, in the law firm context, a star may be a lawyer with a great book of portable business and a track record for attracting and keeping clients. What we don’t often consider is what goes into making and supporting that star, and how many people that star depends on to achieve stardom.
Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge reports on a new study that demonstrates that while past performance may be a reasonable indicator of future performance, “the quality of colleagues in his or her organization also has a significant impact on the [star’s] ability to maintain the highest quality output.” In other words, hiring a star without the supporting team will greatly diminish your chances of replicating or exceeding past performance.
The study’s authors, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee, have some interesting things to say about knowledge workers:
Some have pointed out that the main difference between knowledge workers and, say, manual workers, is that knowledge workers own the means of production. That means they carry the knowledge, information, and skills in their heads and can take it with them. As the basis of competition shifts to superior knowledge and information, organizations have naturally become increasingly concerned that they attract, leverage, and retain the best knowledge workers.
In addition, our culture is very enamored of stars and with the idea that extraordinary talent accounts for individuals’ extraordinary performance. The business media likes to treat star knowledge workers, such as top analysts, bankers, lawyers, and CEOs, as if they are star athletes. There is an assumption that these star knowledge workers, like star athletes, actually “own” everything they need to perform at the top level and can take that knowledge and skill anywhere. They are treated as free agents who can take their top performance to work for the highest bidder.
Our study [of financial analysts] debunks that myth. Star analysts rely a lot on the quality of the colleagues that their organization provides to sustain top performance. They cannot simply replicate their top performance in any organizational context.
Since knowledge managers are in many ways the ultimate knowledge workers, it’s worth thinking about the implications of this study for hiring and keeping knowledge managers. It would appear that a focus on the credentials or track record of an individual is insufficient to ensure high quality performance. Having a law firm knowledge management team comprised only of graduates from Ivy League law schools, for example, is both unnecessary and possibly useless. What counts is building a well-integrated, properly supported team in which everyone works to their full capability and has the opportunity to perform like a star.
It’s a relatively easy thing to eyeball a resume and check off the great educational institutions mentioned there or the world-class organizations that have employed the candidate you are considering for a new job. It’s a much harder thing to assess the extent to which this candidate is a team player (which is a good thing) and needs the support of the right team to perform at a high level (which is much more challenging). And, it is an even harder thing to be able to assess honestly the extent to which your existing staff is (or can become) a strong team, able to work effectively with this candidate.
More than anything, this study underscores the vital role managers play in hiring and deploying the members of their staff.
For managers, it is imperative to understand that stars are not self-contained silos. Producing top-quality knowledge work requires collaboration and flows of information among a network of top performers. That means any one decision on hiring and retention can have a real impact on the performance of top employees in an entirely different part of the firm. It also means that it is not enough to have a few star performers here and there within the organization. If these stars lack high-quality support and information-sharing with other star colleagues, they will have a harder time maintaining their star performance.
Firms that already have a large stable of high-performing individuals might have built a competitive advantage. Their stars make it more likely for each other to sustain top performance. Firms that lack this advantage fight an uphill battle. They can hire or cultivate stars. But if there are only a few stars, these individuals will tend to have a tougher time sustaining top performance.
What does your knowledge management staff look like? A group of under-engaged disaffected individuals? A collection of motivated but unsupported stars? A team of diverse people that consistently produces high quality work product? The secret of success in this is in how you manage and support the team, not how many stars you hire.