The best and the brightest?

I hear a lot of talk about companies wanting to hire the best and the brightest (I’m going to abbreviate this as BaB for this article). But I wonder if that’s a great long-term strategy? Is there something better?

When building a business, we’re often so focused on the parts that make up the system of our business that we forget that our business is itself a part of a bigger system. Is it selfish for a business to hire only BaBs? Would it be better for that business, in the long haul, to hire average people and help them become great? Would that be a short term sacrifice that would benefit the bigger system and thus ultimately the business itself?

It’s interesting that there’s a book designed to teach managers how to keep the BaBs that they hired. That’s a fear isn’t it, with hiring a BaB – the fear of their mobility. Compare the loyalty of the BaB you just hired from another company versus someone who your company helped develop into a BaB.

Hiring BaBs isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, anyway. In 2004, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled, The Risky Business of Hiring Rock Stars. It’s worth reading.

“For all the hype that surrounds stars, human resources experts have rarely studied their performance over time. Six years ago, we started tracking high-flying CEOs, researchers, and software developers, as well as leading professionals in investment banking, advertising, public relations, management consulting, and the law. We observed that top performers in all those groups were more like comets than stars. They were blazing successes for a while but quickly faded out when they left one company for another.”

Why might this be? One of the key reasons cited has to do with systems. The performance of any individual is a combination of her own individual performance plus her interaction with the system in which she works. The equation looks like this, where P is performance, I is the individual’s contribution, and SI is the contribution due to the individual’s interaction within the system: P = I + SI

Even if you knew P, you’ve still got a single equation with two variables. And the SI term is constantly changing over time, so it’s ultimately impossible to measure. When you remove the BaB from their system and bring them into yours, you’ve really no idea what P will become.

A business that takes the long term view need not be in a rush to hire BaBs. Because it believes in strengthening the system in which it is a part, a business with long term vision will develop its employees. It will help its employees continue their education (and here I don’t necessarily mean a traditional college education). It will constantly bring in new knowledge from the outside and share that knowledge with any employee interested in learning.

When I look back on my life, the happiest, most energetic and productive times were when I was in a development spurt. I was eager to challenge myself, venturing outside my comfort zone little by little, and getting better every day. And it’s not just my experience. Listen to Liz Wiseman talk about the power of rookies. But people won’t take themselves out of their comfort zone, learn, and develop, unless they feel safe.

Many business environments are not suitable for inspiring learning. We only learn by making mistakes, and when mistakes are not tolerated, or there’s an environment of fear, or short term thinking, forget it – you’re not going to have much luck growing BaBs from within.

If, however, you build an environment free from these things, safe and conducive to exploration and learning, this is a very sustainable model. This leads me to one last great reason to build your own BaBs instead of hiring them from the outside: those BaBs know how important it is to preserve the environment in which they flourished. A rock star from the outside won’t have this important understanding, and what’s worse, they may bring along baggage from their previous company which tends to threaten that safe environment you’ve worked so hard to build.

3 thoughts on “The best and the brightest?

  1. Keith,
    Found a 10 year old HBR article that supports your thesis:

    “The Risky Business of Hiring Stars”

    “A players are ambitious, brainy, dynamic—and charismatic. When you recruit talent from outside the organization, which is inevitable since developing people within the firm takes time and money, why settle for B players? Hitch your wagon to a rising star, and the company’s profits will soar.

    That’s a powerful idea, and several books and management gurus have popularized various shades of it over the past decade. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of people management strategies in many companies. There’s only one problem. Like many popular ideas, it doesn’t work.”

    https://hbr.org/2004/05/the-risky-business-of-hiring-stars/ar/1

    Amazing to watch a great organization, say the US Military, develop really great people and teams, out of good people. Not much pay, a good deal of personal risk and not much autonomy or control. Maybe the system? Could be!

    Like

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