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Superstars or Super Collaborators

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 15, 2011
Must We Have a Cultural Divide?

Author: Prucia Buscell

Newsweek Cover Sept 2011Apple without Steve Jobs?

As analysts consider what Jobs' resignation as CEO means for the future of Apple and businesses that Apple inventions transformed in the computer, music, entertainment and media industries, it is impossible not to ponder two more elusive questions. What individual traits and tendencies combine with external circumstance to makes a high impact leader? And do we value superstars more than stellar collaborators?

William Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, analyses our adoration of individual brilliance. In his June 21 post, Taylor calls star power one of the "great dividing lines in our business culture today." Which works best-fielding a well-balanced team or assembling a collection of great individuals? It turns out that's an emotional question.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asserted in a New York Times story that an exceptional person is 100 times better than someone who's just pretty good and his view is echoed among top executives determined to recruit the best and the brightest. Taylor responded with an essay "Great People are Overrated" "Have we become so culturally invested in the free agent, the lone wolf, the techno-rebel with a cause," he asked, "that we are prepared to shower millions of dollars...on a small number of superstars rather than on a well assembled team" that achieves through collective capacity? He was surprised by the vitriolic responses.

Taylor admires Jobs, Zuckerberg and other power innovators. But he presents compelling evidence for the value of teams, the diversity of groups, and the belief that character is as important as credentials. He cites the success the Barcelona Football Club-hailed as the world's best soccer team-has gained by emphasizing character, team spirit and regional pride as well as athletic skill. He quotes an Economist essay that tells how team members were taught self-sacrifice and perseverance.

In addition, Taylor quotes fascinating work by Harvard business theoretician Boris Groysberg, who studied 1,000 star Wall Street analysts and found most suffered immediate and long term performance declines after changing jobs. The reason, Groysberg concluded, was that their earlier excellence relied heavily on their former firm's resources, culture, networks and on their former colleagues.

What made Jobs great? A Newsweek profile offer clues. Jobs was notoriously picky about who got to work for him. Jobs also broke every management rule, Joe Nocera wrote in a recent New York Times column. Jobs was a dictator, a micromanager, yet gifted with unerring aesthetic and business sense. His powerfully charismatic persona drew willing followers. But he was brutal with those who disappointed or irritated him. (In 2008 after Nocera criticized Apple's secrecy, Jobs phoned him and called him a slime bucket.)

Nocera writes that Jobs is "on a very short list of the greatest American businessmen ever." Nocera says Jobs basically transformed America: he virtually invented the personal computer when he was 21, and was responsible for developing the mouse and windows and so many other features associated with modern computing. Then came the IPod, the IPhone and the IPad.

Taylor, in his HarvardBusuiness.org blog, says Jobs' body of achievement suggests five questions leaders and innovators can ask themselves:

  • Why should a great person want to work for you?
  • Do you know a great person when you see one?
  • Can you find great people who aren't looking for you?
  • Are you great at teaching great people on your team how your organization works and wins?
  • Are you as tough on yourself as you are on others?

Compare Taylor's questions with Newsweek's compilation of Jobs' Ten Commandments.

Maybe the best superstar/stellar collaborator preference could be both/and instead of either/or.

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