Are Great People Overrated or Just Under-Evaluated?

I just finished Bill Taylor’s blog on HBR, entitled “Great People Are Overrated”.  It’s quite an interesting read.  While I encourage you to take a look at it yourselves, at its barest essence, Taylor’s position is that if offered the choice between having one superstar in his organization versus a group of solid contributors who can work as a team, he’ll take the team every time.  He posits this assertion in opposition to Mark Zuckerberg’s statement in a New York Times article earlier this year that “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good.  They are 100 times better.”  Although it’s my job to recruit star performers for my clients, I generally think Taylor is right (but perhaps not for the reasons he thinks he is).


Throughout my career, I have seen smart people fail in organizations more times than I can count, especially in my early days as an outplacement consultant for Right Management.  They rarely failed because they were technically incompetent; in fact, they often were brilliant in their fields of expertise.  So why did they fall short?  In my opinion, their disappointing performance was based on the fact that they lacked the people and communication skills to lead an organization.  They were virtuoso performers miscast in roles that required conductors; in the end, really not their fault, but a huge indictment of the assessment and selection practices of the firms that hired them.  Let me give you an example.


I had a client that, a decade or so ago, hired a Partner out of one of the big strategy consulting houses to run one of their lines of business.  He was a huge success: drove performance beyond expectations; engaged co-workers at all levels in the success of the organization – one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.   My client thought they had cracked the code and immediately hired several executives with similar profiles to lead other key business lines.  Every hire since the first one has been a miserable failure.  I don’t believe even one of those brilliantly educated and accomplished executives made it past his or her two-year anniversary with the company.


In my mind, this company made the fatal mistake of becoming enamored with the profile and not the person.  This organization is in a business that is all about operational excellence, execution and getting the most out of a large low-skill workforce to drive performance.  These are not qualities that define Partners in a large strategy consulting firm.  They create the plan; they don’t execute it.  They have limited direct management experience and, often, their brilliance can lead to problems – arrogance when dealing with co-workers and an inability to adapt to situations where their natural abilities don’t yield success, for example.


My client’s original hire, on the other hand, was the antithesis of this profile beyond the fact that he was wicked smart.  He had no hint of ego, was a consummate relationship builder and grew up in a blue collar family where he had to work his way through undergrad and business school.  Most of all, he had no pride of ownership when it came to good ideas.  This ability to adapt is probably what contributed most to his success in a radically different business model.


In reality, my client had not found a profile that cracked the code; they had found a candidate who broke the mold, without realizing it.  As a consequence, they poured millions of dollars into mismatched human capital investments, frustrated their own people in the succession plan and derailed the careers of more than a few Partners at Bain, BCG and McKinsey.   They were blinded by the raw potential of these new hires without giving enough thought as to whether their leadership styles were a good fit for the company culture.  It’s stories like these that drive my firm’s fanatical focus on cultural fit in the retained search process.


If Bill Taylor had sent me the first draft of his blog, I might have suggested that he go with the title “Great People are Under-Evaluated” versus “Great People are Overrated.”  After all, what CEO doesn’t want to have great people working in his or her company?  If we are diligent in our selection practices and fully assess potential leaders across all dimensions and not simply on their results, there is no reason why we can’t have the best of both worlds: great, smart leaders who also fit the cultures of our organizations.