Should employers cultivate the required skills or buy them

October 2, 2011
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You may have read or heard about the statement made by Facebook developer Mark Zuckerburg that he would rather have one brilliant programmer than a thousand good ones. Associated with the strategy was his action to buy a small software organization for an incredible price, just to capture a few “outstanding” programmers. This maneuver sparked some media discussion about what happens in an organization when you have a superstar or two who get all the fame — and usually a huge salary or bonus arrangement — and whether this is really the way to build a successful company.

Does this approach develop resentment, a group of coat-tail riders, a cult environment, or just outstanding results? It may depend on a variety of factors. Maybe such stars also have strong leadership qualities that get others on the team to push their own good qualities to produce better performance. These “stars” become very well known and are watched by all sorts of people, with various expectations. Whatever the outcomes, somebody can say, “I told you so.”

There are hundreds of examples of well-skilled individuals in almost any field that make significant contributions. The question becomes, can they truly make a difference without the other supporting resources and are they worth the price? That price, as noted above, may be costly in more than just dollars. You also have to be ready to deal with what happens when the stars fail to perform, or circumstances shift and the purchased skills are no longer the right ones.

What are the downsides of such a strategy? In business, even in the sporting or entertainment businesses where the superstars are most noticeable, someone is looking at and trying to minimize the downside risk.

This risk reduction methodology can be easily characterized as not “putting all your eggs in one basket.” In fact, when you start moving in this direction, you begin to find a lot of support for the true “team” strategy. Team strategies often turn into a way of doing business where the results depend on all the cogs in the wheel working together, so it becomes a very dependable “well-oiled” machine that chugs along for an extended period. It’s probably a lot less flamboyant than the other approach, but it can be just as rewarding over the long haul. Organizations that take this approach are more stable, and may be more sustainable. They, too, have risks that have to be measured and addressed. They can become complacent. They may be harder to redirect when change is required. They may also lack appeal for people.

The critical factors in what drives an organization to choose one style over the other may be available resources, demand for attention, the need for faster results, or a mix of any number of things. Probably the most important consideration is to recognize which style works best in your circumstances, and then build a strategy. Organizations that get caught up trying to go both ways or adopt the flavor of the month are the ones that go through up-and-down swings and end up with mediocre results over the long haul — assuming they survive.

It would seem the prudent business person would opt for a methodology that emphasizes the integrated team culture. The lower profile team strategy provides the organization more options and forces fewer make-or-break decisions. These more limited decisions allow the organization and the individuals to evolve and grow, provide opportunities for all employees, and make it easy for people to understand what’s necessary and then plan to achieve those outcomes. It also lets the focus be on the products and outcomes instead of feeding egos and dealing with the fallout that comes with high-profile individuals. In any organization, there are enough human resource issues to occupy management without having every contact with the public be a media event. Handling stars takes a lot of time and resources that might be better applied to more lasting activities.

As simple as this idea is to express, it should also be noted that all the cogs must work together and you need to know how and when to oil them. The mission and the desired outcomes have to be clear for the machine to work properly. That takes time and people who are comfortable communicating, cajoling and “leading from behind.” They are the ones making sure they bring in the farmers to cultivate the fields and not just the gunslingers who fill up the saloons for a few days.

Ardon Schambers is president of P3HR Consulting & Services LLC.

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