This article originally appeared in LinkedIn
When it comes to an organization’s scarcest resource—talent—the difference between the best and the rest is enormous. In fields that involve repetitive, transactional tasks, like restaurant prep cook, top performers are typically two or three times as productive as others. In highly specialized or creative work, like trial law, the differential could be a factor of six or more.
Yet it’s quite rare for companies to bring together a team of star players to tackle a big challenge. Many leaders believe that all-star teams just don’t work. Egos will take over, they argue, and stars will drive everyone crazy.
But I’ve found that when the stakes are high—when a company is designing a critical new product, or a university needs to overhaul its administrative cost structure—I want the best people on the job, provided they are managed effectively.
All-star teams have two big advantages. First, sheer firepower. If you have world-class talent of all kinds on a team, you multiply the productivity and performance advantages that stand-alone stars deliver. That’s the logic behind the best auto-racing pit crews, where each member is the best for his position—gas man, jackman, tire carriers, and tire changers. Add just one average player to a crew—say, an ordinary tire changer—and the time to get the driver in and out of the pit nearly doubles.
The second advantage is synergy. Putting the best thinkers together can spur creativity and ideas that no one member of the team would have developed alone. The blockbuster movie Toy Story wasn’t the product of one visionary filmmaker. Rather, it was the result of an often prickly but ultimately productive collaboration among Pixar’s top artists and animators, Disney’s veteran executives (including Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of the film division), and Steve Jobs. The Pixar team originally presented Disney with what Katzenberg deemed an uninspiring tale. A major revision—far more edgy, at Katzenberg’s insistence—lacked the cheeriness essential to a family movie. Finally the all-star group came up with something that satisfied everyone on the team—and went on to become the year’s top-grossing film.
As valuable as A players are, it’s not enough to identify them and throw them together. In order to succeed, they require a certain type of management, as detailed by several of my Bain colleagues in a recent Harvard Business Review article.
As a baseline, remove any disincentives for teamwork. For many years, Microsoft used a “stack ranking” system as part of its performance evaluation model. At regular intervals, a certain percentage of any team’s members would be rated “top performers,” “good,” “average,” “below average” and “poor,” regardless of the team’s overall performance. Over time, the stack ranking created a culture in which employees competed with one another rather than against other companies. Star players rarely liked to join groups with other stars, because they might be seen as the weakest members of the team.
Watch out for big egos that overshadow the rest of the cast. The use of “A” teams can lead to a system in which only the best feel valued, thereby demoralizing average performers. One antidote is to ensure that everyone shares in the team’s achievements. George Clooney and the rest of his cast on Ocean’s Eleven created an environment where the crew reveled in their mutual success. Reportedly, most crew members were so pleased with the experience that they sought to sign on for Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen. Other ways to keep “B” players engaged include recognizing performance, whether it’s mission-critical or not; using a common performance evaluation system for stars and nonstars; and establishing common rewards shared by all involved.
Great team members can be undercut by mediocre leaders. Imagine a chamber orchestra or a big jazz band made up of virtuosos, but conducted by an amateur. To avoid this scenario, an organization should invest as much time in picking team leaders as in picking members, ask members for feedback on the leader early (and often), and not be afraid to switch generals or even to promote a team member to leader.
Managing a team of stars is not for the faint of heart. But it can work if the right components are in place.