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Jeffrey Pfeffer
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Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

Why Stars Are Hard to Pick

The success--yet again--of Kurt Warner, quarterback of the surprising Arizona Cardinals, illustrates many of the talent management mistakes leaders make.

Note first that Warner's career statistics are amazing--he is one of the highest-rated quarterbacks of all time. You should also recall how he was drafted out of the arena football league and won his first MVP award just a few years after being in financial difficulty, working in a grocery store. So, this story of "undiscovered" talent is one that has been repeated throughout Warner's career.

Here are some quick lessons I draw from his story:

  • All the "talent" rhetoric notwithstanding, it is actually very hard to assess talent. This is true even in domains such as football (and baseball and basketball--Michael Jordan having been cut from the team by his high school basketball coach), let alone for the multidimensional, interdependent jobs done inside companies. Leaders would do well to stop the war-for-talent nonsense of focusing on their stars and instead focus on everybody--mostly because the ability to pick stars is quite limited. In focusing on proven stars and ignoring everyone else, companies risk focusing on the wrong people and ignoring potential stars.
  • Warner's story illustrates the power of reputation and image management. Studies show that impression management activities affect performance evaluations more than objective performance. Warner, throughout his career, has had objectively good and in some years truly outstanding numbers. So has Jeff Garcia. But they haven't gotten the hype of some others. Inside companies, there is much less attention to objective facts and too much emphasis on interpersonal similarity, liking, image, and so forth. Leaders would do well to make their assessments more objective and to try and overlook the possibly undeserved image (either good or bad) of their subordinates.
  • And the case of Kurt Warner illustrates the effects of commitment. Barry Staw, a professor at Berkeley, has shown that draft order for basketball players predicts playing time better than actual performance. Why? Because once having made a judgment (this person is a star, this one isn't), leaders act on those judgments, because they are committed to the initial decisions--even if the judgments were inaccurate! This goes on in companies all the time, which is why I often tell people that the only way to overcome some initial negative impressions is to move to another place. Too bad for the companies, who overlook talent because leaders remain way to wedded to their initial decisions.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  January 25, 2009; 9:09 PM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I have been a big fan of Kurt Warner and while his head injuries were a major concern - I thought the NY Giants were giving up on him too soon - but then they won the Superbowl and I thought maybe I was wrong. But then the next year Manning folded and I discovered I was right after all - I thought I erred in judgment but then found out I hadn't - just kidding!

Posted by: agapn9 | January 27, 2009 12:15 PM
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