Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Chasing Stars: Lessons from NFL Free Agency

In New England this morning, the gnashing of teeth and cries of agony can be heard in the streets.  The Patriots have let another star player leave via free agency.   Why can't the Patriots just pay the money!?!  Belichick and Kraft are too cheap.   You hear all these complaints.   However, several NFL writers have commented that signing high-priced free agents has been fool's gold for the most part in past years.  The Patriots fans do not want to hear that evidence. They want stars. 

Is there a lesson here for all business leaders?  Boris Groysberg has done fascinating research on the mobility of star performers.   He began his work by focusing on superstar Wall Street analysts.  He found that many firms pay top dollar to recruit away superstar analysts from competing firms.  In the end, many of those superstars experience a performance decline at their new firm.  Why?  Groysberg argues that we underestimate the extent to which that high performance was driven by the team around that superstar, the supporting organizational context, etc.   In other words, we attribute too much of their high performance to their internal abilities.  We underestimate external factors.  We also discount the difficulty of adapting to a new organizational system and structure.  Groysberg has argued that the same trap of chasing stars occurs in many fields.

Several years ago, he studied punters and wide receivers in the NFL.   He found that wide receivers experienced a decline in performance when they switched teams (above and beyond the normal decline associated with age).  Punters, on the other hand, did not suffer a performance decrease after switching teams. What's going on?  Groysberg and his colleagues argued that some positions involve much more interaction with fellow players.   A wide receiver's performance depends on the knowledge of a particular offensive system, experience within that system, time spent working with a particular quarterback, etc.  A punter's performance is not dependent on those around him to nearly the same degree.  Now think about other NFL positions.  Many of them are much more like the wide receiver than the punter.  Therefore, many players often have a hard time sustaining their high performance after switching teams via free agency.  Still, some positions may have less dependence on interaction with teammates, knowledge of a particular system, etc.  Coaches and general managers should be thinking about the "portability" of each position.

For business leaders, the question is:  Which stars in your firm have talent and skills that are more portable than others?  Think carefully about the work that these stars do.  Think about their position/role, not just their individual ability.  In which cases will one experience a performance decline when switching organizations?  For what types of positions will people be able to maintain high performance in a new system and with new colleagues? 

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