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Is it you or is it the team?

Jan 29, 2017 Success, Sunday Nation

You’re a star, you know you are, and so does everyone else. You have deep talent, and it’s all personal.

At school, you clocked the top grades, or excelled in sports, or were the best artistic performer of your era.

In your career, you’ve always been the big cheese. Success seems to surround you; you’re the person everyone wants to work with; you’re the main mamma or the in-demand dude. You command pay-rises others just can’t. No employer wants to lose you; yet the offers are always there to move on and take your magic to a new place.

So here’s a thing. Two American professors looked at surgeons and what drives their success. Great surgeons, we all know, are rare and always in high demand. In fact, so scarce is their expertise they are often allowed to perform procedures at multiple hospitals. So our professors studied 38,577 procedures performed by 203 cardiac surgeons at 43 different hospitals.

And here’s the remarkable finding: these surgeons were good, yes, and they did get even better with practice. But they didn’t get better wherever they practiced; they only got better at the specific hospital where they conducted most operations. They couldn’t carry their performance with them.

Here’s another thing. Security analysts in investment banks are another highly paid group. The stars in the profession are thought to have superior knowledge and expertise in stock-picking. They are also supposed to be extremely mobile; they can purportedly take all their talent with them. It’s all in the head, right?

A study (of more than a thousand analysts over a nine-year period) was done on the portability of their unique skills. When star analysts moved to a different firm, their performance actually dropped – and stayed lower for quite a while.

What’s going on here? You can read more about these studies in Adam Grant’s engrossing and enlightening book, Give And Take. The upshot is this: individual talent really does matter, but it often matters most in the context of a team. A great individual needs to work with other outstanding people. Then, when the group practices together and learns each member’s nuances and peculiarities, performance really does improve.

The surgeons depend greatly for their success on the work of nurses and anaesthesiologists they are familiar with and whose strengths and weaknesses they have understood over a period. The security analysts also rely on colleagues with knowledge and insights, people they can riff off and think with. When people move, they struggle to build similarly strong networks around them. Lionel Messi excels for Barcelona, but struggles to lead his national team to similar heights.

The problem, as professor Grant goes on to explain, is two-fold: many people suffer from responsibility bias, where they overvalue their own contributions and undervalue those of others; and they also have a perspective gap: they insist on their own opinions and are unable to place themselves in the shoes of others. They can’t see that their success comes from collaborating and connecting, not from their own solo attributes.

The truth may be this: to be truly successful (no matter how much innate talent you have) you need to rely on people who know you very well, or on people who contribute strong skills of their own. Those who know this, and who cultivate a great team around them, most often go on to sustained success.

And yet wherever I look I see companies trying manically to poach talent from competitors and individuals trying to bump up their rewards by routinely taking off to greener pastures. Sometimes this works; but very often it just doesn’t. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen executives plucked from elsewhere fail to perform; or once-sparkling careers come to nothing after a merry-go-round of job-hopping.

The truth about success goes a little deeper than temporary gain. Great individuals matter, but mostly in the context of great teams. Our best work most often comes when we are working for long periods with great networks of coworkers and collaborators. That is why companies should be building star teams, not just a collection of trophy employees; and why individuals should be looking to nurture long-term relationships with those who understand them best and complement their skills.

(Sunday Nation, 29 January 2017)

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