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Hiring Rock Stars, Glory Seekers, and Unicorns

Posted by Bob Corlett on August 18, 2009

Are you frustrated in facing a really complex problem?  Have all your attempts to solve it failed? That is precisely when you must resist the temptation to hire a "rock star" or savior - someone who can magically solve all your problems simultaneously. I often see companies who want someone to come in, understand a complex situation, create a strategy to solve it, then execute the strategy singlehandedly, then when it succeeds, hire a team to build on that success. One magical person who takes all the risk, possesses all the knowledge, has a wide range of incredibly diverse skills, and gets results without rocking the boat, causing trouble or needing much help from anyone else in the firm. They want a unicorn - a mythical creature that lives only in their mind's eye.

Brandon Watson wrote a wonderful post "Under No Circumstances Should You Believe That You Need to Hire "Rock Stars." his point? "You don’t need to hire the best employees, just the right ones."  Brandon puts it this way:

"Hiring rock stars ...  is inviting trouble because they are likely to be glory seekers who are thinking about their own personal rewards, and less likely to be thinking about the team."

(By the way, for more perspective on the hidden downside of hiring "rock stars" read BusinessWeek's "Why Jerks are Bad Decision Makers" profiling ex-luminaries like Bernie Madoff, Lehman Brother's Dick Fuld,  AIG's Joe Cassano, and Bear Stearns' Jimmy Cayne. Or "We Fired our Top Talent. Best Decision We Ever Made.")

So, if you want to lower your risk and increase your ability to solve complex problems, instead of trying to hire a unicorn/rock star, instead build a team of top performers - make sure every single job in your company is filled with a top performer. Do that, and no rock star (with their toadying entourage of mediocre performers) will ever be able to compete with you. 

So this begs the question of what, exactly,  is a top performer?

"A top performer is someone who is capable of, and interested in, driving the business results you need — someone who will take responsibility for getting results within the norms of your company culture."

So, now let's come back to how, instead of hiring a rock star, you might go about solving your frustratingly complex problem, using your team of top performers. Working together, one person might provide the context and institutional knowledge of the problem, another might develop the strategy, another might play the skeptic - challenging assumptions and flawed reasoning, another might focus on execution, and another might work on hiring the team and providing the project management oversight needed. In short it probably takes the talents of several people ... and that is a good thing. Because the future is only going to move faster and be more complex than anything we have seen so far - and whatever problems you are facing now will look easy compared to the problems that are yet to come. So you're going to need that team, trained,  primed, experienced,  and ready to tackle your next challenge, and the one after that.

Employer Guide to Interviewing | Staffing Advisors

Topics: Performance Management, Top Performer, Interviewing Executives, Hiring Process